Meet China’s Cat Island, where Shanghai strays wait for a new home

SHANGHAI — The happiest place on Earth for cats might just be here, on Cat Island, a feline playground just a few miles from Shanghai Disneyland. While humans whoop and whirl at the latter, the 400-plus kitties who call Cat Island home rest in the shade of specially constructed grass-covered play tunnels or loll about in pagodas. They cross a wooden bridge to stalk through pear orchards, the intrepid among them even venturing into the horse stable.

The pampered residents here were once strays in downtown Shanghai, a city of 25 million people and somewhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million stray cats. But efforts are underway to stem the exploding feral population in the metropolis and find homes for at least some of the newly neutered cats.

Cat Island’s entire population is up for adoption. Many at “cat cafes” in the city do a similar thing: Provide a space where people can befriend and potentially take home a neutered, if shy, kitty.

There’s no equivalent of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in China. Instead, it’s left to grass-roots organizations like these to step in to save cats — from the streets, or from people who think they’re better off culled.

“Cat adoption has become quite popular in recent years, especially among the younger generation,” said Erica Guo, owner of all-rescue cat cafe More Meow Garden.

The very idea of having a cat, or a dog for that matter, as a pet is a relatively new one in China. With most Chinese people just a couple of generations removed from rural life, many people still viewed animals as livestock or rat catchers, not companions.

But as living standards have risen, so has the view of animals changed. Younger Chinese are increasingly sharing their homes with pets — often instead of having babies — and can regularly be seen walking their cats in clear backpack carriers or on leashes.

Now, analysts estimate there are as many as 51 million pet dogs and 65 million pet cats in urban China. It has generated an enormous furry economy — China’s pet industry was worth $44 billion in 2020.

This popularization of pets became very — often tragically — obvious during the covid-induced lockdowns of 2022, which were particularly long and draconian in Shanghai. When humans were shipped off to quarantine centers, their pets were often killed or left to die.

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Cat Island is a safe space for stray cats. (Video: Yufan Lu/The Washington Post)

At the end of 2022, a few months after Shanghai’s longest lockdown ended, a government-affiliated nonprofit foundation opened the 130-acre Shanghai Pet Base facility, which encompasses Cat Island.

It is concentrating on trapping and neutering strays, then returning them to the communities where they were found. When that’s not possible, they’re rehomed to Cat Island.

“This is what we are able to do, here and now,” said Zha Zhenliang, the foundation official responsible for Cat Island and the Pet Base. “We hope every [apartment] compound can have their own ‘cat island’ of a safe place for the cats to be,” and their feeders can operate openly, he said. Feeding strays can be a controversial activity, resulting in conflict between cat lovers and neighbors who just want them culled.

To adopt a Cat Island cat, people must first trek to the remote, grassy site outside Shanghai — a semirural location chosen to avoid angering neighbors — then complete a pet-care course and have their home inspected by video call for suitability. The precautions mean adoption numbers are barely denting the problem: In 18 months, only 130 cats have moved to new homes.

Homes for garden-variety cats

There are also more accessible places for interacting with cats — and potentially taking one home. Shanghai has seen an explosion in the number of cat cafes, where customers can play with some cats, and sometimes even drink a cup of coffee.

Guo, who started More Meow Garden — actually an office with vertical climbing and sleeping shelves for the felines — in downtown Shanghai five years ago, said her cafe was populated entirely by rescued strays.

“A cat cafe is not only a place for cats and humans to play together, but also provides an opportunity for prospective adopters to fully contact with cats and help them understand whether they really want to choose a companion animal to join their family,” said Guo, who rehomes about one cat per month, for a total of 64 so far.

A key hurdle to increasing that number: Many status-conscious Shanghai residents want cats they can brag about on social media — buying or adopting purebreds, not the garden-variety strays that Cat Island and More Meow are offering. “The average person here sees a cat and thinks, are they worth money or not, are they clean or not, when actually the only difference is the cats’ conditions,” Zha said. “So we need to manage the people even more than the cats.”

Independent rescuers and unofficial organizations do the lion’s share of caring for Shanghai’s street animals, ranging from collaborations in every neighborhood to feed strays to about 50 formal rescue groups.

“I estimate there are hundreds of private shelters big and small in Shanghai,” said Angelika Ma, founder of the private Nekoshelter in western Shanghai. (Neko is the Japanese word for cat.) “The problem is they are often operated by poor, elderly people who lack the ability to provide stable shelter and to find a home for the animals,” Ma said.

Some independent rescue organizations target particular niches, but most focus on the Sisyphean task of finding animals homes. Groups like the one that runs Shanghai Adoption Day take rescue cats to public spaces like malls to try to find them new homes, while online adoption platforms resemble dating apps, with pets’ personalities and glamour shots.

Zorro’s galvanizing death

While many of those people who feed stray cats in compounds and parks do so under cover of night, a particularly organized effort has emerged at Jing’an Sculpture Park downtown. More than 130 cat-lovers coordinate feeding shifts and crowdfund food and medical care for the park cats. They also try to find homes for the friendlier kittens.

The park has about a hundred cats, volunteer Bon Wen estimated, and the group has neutered more than 90 of them.

The park management tacitly approved of their efforts but was forced into a more active role after the killing last May of Zorro, a black-and-white “cow” cat who had become famous on social media. Zorro’s fans made a candlelit shrine where his body was found.

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There have been other killings and maimings too. “There is no good way to prevent people from hurting cats,” Wen said. “We all have to go to work and have our own lives. It’s impossible to stand guard in the park 24 hours a day.”

Zorro’s death, together with a growing market for animal torture videos, have sparked nationwide social media outrage and renewed calls for an animal protection law. China has no laws against animal cruelty or abandonment, and existing agricultural laws only prohibit selling strays to slaughterhouses, not against recreational abuse. Netizens and some lawmakers have proposed extending wildlife animal protections to companion animals.

But as society changes, Zha sees an animal protection law as essential. “Without a protection law, we must establish a social standard that isolates and blacklists animal abusers,” Zha said.

Stopping strays from making nine (or more) lives

Attitudes are changing, but too slowly, says Nekoshelter’s Ma. Education about caring for animals as pets, plus punishment for people who abandon animals, is needed. Then authorities should tackle the over-breeding of pedigreed cats and dogs. “They have to start to try go to the root of the problem.”

As efforts to rehome neutered cats continues, slowly, animal advocates’ main effort is focused on desexing Shanghai’s stray cats to bring the population down. The trap-neuter-release program is central to that effort, and one of the heroes of the movement is Yin Xiaojun, a renowned cat catcher better known as Stone.

Stone catches stray cats so they can be neutered and released. (Video: Yufan Lu/The Washington Post)

Yin, a business administrator by day, is called upon almost nightly to retrieve pets from roofs, free kittens stuck down drains and convince feral cats unenthusiastic about a trip to the vet.

​Yin says he has caught more than 4,000 animals a year for the past five years, almost all of them so that they can be neutered. “I taught myself. Hunting is the most primitive masculine skill, it is natural, and the thrill of a successful catch is addictive,” he said.

Once caught, the thrashing felines quickly calm down for the trip to the vet for desexing surgery. After several days of recovery, the felines return to the bag or cage for the trip back home, ears now notched for future identification. One down, a million more to go.

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