To all the people who say “you can’t have it all”, Thenuga Vijakumar is proof that you can ignore the naysayers. The accomplished professional tell Crystal Lee how they stay committed to their passions, even if it’s a road less travelled.
Thenuga Vijakumar’s love for cats runs deep – deep enough for her to take on more than 10 furry housemates and the role of president of Cat Welfare Society (CWS), a charity that advocates sustainable and humane management of community and pet felines. Run primarily by volunteers, CWS assists a large network of animal lovers who actively sterilise, rehome and rehabilitate thousands of cats in Singapore.
As the head of the board, Thenuga focuses on the sterilisation of community and pet cats, and the promotion of responsible cat ownership. During her eight-year tenure, CWS has neutered nearly 40,000 cats to limit overpopulation, which means better care and resources for each feline and less burden on community caregivers. In November 2020, CWS also relaunched its Pet Cat Sterilisation Programme to help financially distressed families hit hard by the pandemic. Some 2,696 domestic felines from needy households were sterilised to date.
Career-wise, Thenuga handles stakeholder management and the development of new businesses in various industries and regions at conglomerate Adani Global. Prior to that, she was a Disputes and Restructuring & Insolvency lawyer for almost a decade, counselling a variety of corporate and individual clients in the banking, construction, energy, food & beverage and technology industries on contentious matters.
What keeps her going? The cat lady reveals her biggest resources.
I first came across CWS in 2009 when I was trying to sterilise the community cat at my parents’ home. She had two litters of kittens, both of which disappeared, and I remember thinking how unsustainable (“ridiculous” was my exact thought) it was to have an ever-increasing population with no resources. I had her sterilised through CWS’ sterilisation programme and my family became her caregiver. Then I started helping out with community cases in which families, often from low income households, needed help with sterilisation or other cat-related matters. Over time, I began assisting with responding to emails and events, and eventually took on the advocacy portfolio as well.
One of the most intense experiences I’ve had also pushed me more into animal welfare. I had just started volunteering with CWS when the need arose to help a family with over 50 cats. They could not afford sterilisation of their initial four and the numbers exploded in a very short time. They were financially strapped so the cats were also undernourished. There were multiple visits to clean the house, which had stained furniture, no food, too many cockroaches and excrement everywhere. Many of the cats were unsocialised and difficult to catch. I remember thinking, they just needed to sterilise those four cats. Now, an entire community of rescuers, fosterers and rehomers bears the burden of caring for 50. That’s how I became passionate about sterilisation.
I think the greatest misconception is that we are a purely animal-related organisation. The reality is that our programmes help the community, namely cat owners and caregivers. Be this through sterilisation programmes, channelling donations of food and other items to rescuers or just setting a national norm for what constitutes responsible cat ownership. We focus on the individual, who then helps the cats.
Work comes first. I keep an eye on the day-to-day engagement work by our CWS team of three full-timers and two part-timers via text. If there are escalations, I deal with them around my work schedule. I have been very fortunate to be working in a company that operates on the principle of contributing back to the community, with bosses who encourage a balanced lifestyle.
Balancing life in legal practice and my work with CWS was a huge struggle. There was one point that I was working 14 hours a day and there were concurrently several urgent matters and escalations at CWS. I was feeling extremely overwhelmed and I reached out to my board members at the society, who all stepped in and helped sort everything out. I’m terrible at asking for help, but after that stretch I became more realistic about my own capabilities.
The CWS Board is composed of an amazing group of women. I find my board members’ wisdom and experience incomparable, and they are a constant source of strength and learning. I admire the tenacity and patience of our Community Engagement Managers, whose role is to educate and humanely resolve cat-related feedback. It’s something I can only hope to emulate.
I would like to achieve two things for Singapore cats. First, specifically for pets, the legalisation of pet cat ownership in HDB flats. It is such an archaic and outdated law that cats are not allowed in public housing. It fails to penalise irresponsible cat ownership and instead vilifies even responsible cat ownership. It’s really time for a change. Second, for community cats, I would love to see a greater cohesion between the human beings and cats in all our neighbourhoods as well as commercial and industrial areas. This would involve the legitimisation of responsible caregiving through a nationwide programme and the mandatory implementation of humane management measures across Singapore.
This story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.