For all those who say “you can’t have it all”, Thenuga Vijakumar is proof that you can ignore the naysayers. Successful professionals tell Crystal Lee how they stay committed to their passions, even if it’s a path less travelled.
Thenuga Vijakumar’s love for cats runs deep – deep enough that she could 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 companion felines. Primarily run by volunteers, CWS supports an extensive network of animal lovers who actively neuter, rehome and rehabilitate thousands of cats in Singapore.
As head of the board, Thenuga focuses on neutering community and companion cats, and promoting responsible cat ownership. During its eight-year tenure, CWS 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 neutering program to help financially challenged families hit hard by the pandemic. Some 2,696 domestic felines from needy households have been sterilized to date.
On the career side, Thenuga manages stakeholder management and new business development across various industries and regions within the Adani Global conglomerate. Previously, she was a litigation, restructuring and insolvency lawyer for nearly a decade, advising a variety of businesses and individuals in the banking, construction, energy, food and utilities sectors. beverages and technology on contentious issues.
What drives her forward? The cat lady reveals her greatest resources.
I first encountered CWS in 2009 when I was trying to neuter the community cat at my parents’ house. She had two litters of kittens, both of which disappeared, and I remember thinking how unsustainable it was (“ridiculous” was my exact thought) to have an ever-growing population without resources. I had him spayed through the CWS sterilization program and my family became his caregivers. Then I started helping with community cases in which families, often from low-income households, needed help with neutering or other cat-related issues. Over time, I started helping with emails and events, and eventually took over the advocacy portfolio as well.
One of the most intense experiences I have had has also pushed me further towards animal welfare. I had just started volunteering with CWS when the need arose to help a family with over 50 cats. They couldn’t afford the sterilization of their front four and the numbers skyrocketed in a very short time. They were financially strapped, so the cats were also undernourished. There were several visits to clean the house, which had stained furniture, no food, too many cockroaches and feces everywhere. Many cats were unsocialized and difficult to catch. I remember thinking, they just needed to neuter those four cats. Today, it is a whole community of first aiders, foster families and rehousing that bears the burden of caring for 50. This is how I became passionate about sterilization.
I think the biggest misconception is that we are purely animal related organization. The reality is that our programs help the community, namely cat owners and caregivers. Whether it’s through sterilization programs, funneling donations of food and other items to rescuers, or simply setting a national standard 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 daily engagement work of our CWS team of three full-time and two part-time via text. If there are escalations, I deal with them according to my work schedule. I was fortunate to work in a company that operates on the principle of giving back to the community, with bosses who encourage a balanced lifestyle.
Balancing life in legal practice and my work with CWS has been a huge struggle. There was a time when I was working 14 hour days and there were several pressing issues and escalations at the CWS simultaneously. I felt extremely overwhelmed and contacted the company’s board members, who all stepped in and helped sort everything out. I suck at asking for help, but after this stretch, I became more realistic about my own abilities.
The SCF Board of Directors is made up of an incredible group of women. I find the wisdom and experience of my board members 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 chat-related comments. It’s something I can only hope to emulate.
I would like to achieve two things for Singapore cats. First, specifically for pets, the legalization of pet cat ownership in HDB apartments. It’s such an archaic and outdated law that cats aren’t allowed in public housing. It does not penalize irresponsible cat owners and even vilifies responsible cat owners. It really is time for a change. Second, for community cats, I would like to see more cohesion between humans and cats in all of our neighborhoods as well as commercial and industrial areas. This would involve the legitimization of responsible care delivery through a national program and the mandatory implementation of human management measures across Singapore.
This story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.