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Josephia Liem of the Whiskers' Syndicate Has a Mission: Save Indonesia's Stray Cats

Liem works around the clock to rescue the street animals of Bandung and manages a cat sanctuary.

 |  Mar 11th 2014  |   3 Contributions


Editor's note: Marie is the director of marketing for Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, one of our favorite rescue groups, and the founder of Animal Rescue Marketing, where a longer version of this interview was first published. We wanted to share it with our readers, so we asked Marie nicely and she said yes! 

Describing Josephia Liem as a superwoman is an understatement. As the founder of the Whiskers' Syndicate, an animal welfare organization in Indonesia whose mission is to rescue the street animals of Bandung, she works around the clock and also manages a sanctuary for rescued cats. Read on and be inspired by the story of Josie and her pussycats!

A wider view of the sanctuary.

Catster: Tell us about the animal crisis in Indonesia. How does the cause relate to the country's culture?

Josephia: As the breeder capital of my nation, Bandung is overflowing with unwanted animals, and the stray management is often too gruesome to be true. Sadly, the self-appointed "big nation" has no animal welfare laws, and conservation efforts are tainted by fearless corruption. Our country is still behind in terms of animal welfare and nature conservancy. Biodiversity is still considered a mere resources or tools of trade.

Josie and one of her pussycats.

Devoid of any protection, animals in Indonesia are victimized by poachers, illegal trade, excessive milling, and all types of abuse. Be they household animals, farm animals, or those in the wild, they are treated as “things.” Breeders take out a kitty-mill cat from inside a motorcycle baggage cabin (that tiny, airless space under the saddle right at the side of the gas tank), or they will tie dogs to an open truck and drive them miles away to the vet if the dog is not able to produce a litter. And if the vet discovers the dog is ill, owners are not willing to pay for care.

Josie's shelter was damaged after Typhoon Haiyan.

Tell us about a little about yourself. 

I was born into generations of an animal-loving family -- my grandfathers, my parents, and my siblings. I was partially raised by a German Shepherd named Boy who my grandfather rescued from the streets in the chaotic post-Indonesian war for independence, where there were countless other homeless animals.

When I took a job offer in Bandung in 2008, I had no idea of the dark sides of this resort town dubbed “Paris Van Java.” The way humans treated animals, the environment, and each other disgusted me, but it also taught me ever so strongly that I needed to be the change for these animals deserving better lives.

One of the rescued kittens watches the floodwaters rise.

Severe water damage after the rains.

I was a full-time executive officer in a large company by day and an animal rescuer by night. My passion for animals took over me, and I answered its call without hesitation. I still look back now and then, but I never regret being where I currently am.

When did you decide to make a difference for animals?

Honestly? I don't remember. I followed my grandfather and my father around rescuing animals and as soon as I started having my own income at 12 years old, I always found myself among paws and tails (and wings, and claws, and whatnot) -- street and tormented wild animals. Although I grew up to be like the mainstream kids -- going to college, then climbing the corporate ladder -- going home, to me, has always been about reuniting with my family, which included my animals.

Indonesia is full of backyard breeders, and spay/neuter programs haven't taken off yet.

Tell me about your decision to start a rescue and to tackle this cause. What convinced you to do so? 

I lived in a boarding house during my first year in Bandung and my landlord had a pregnant pet cat. Her toddler son was fond of tormenting her. To get away, the cat would run away to my room. She gave birth right beside me on my bed! My life has never the same. I named her Grace.

How has the Whiskers' Syndicate made a difference in your community, both in changing the lives of humans and the animals?

I started the Whiskers' Syndicate at the end of 2008. As of today, I have rescued more than 168 cats and a few dogs from the street of Bandung.

Grace the cat inspired Josie to start her rescue.

Ninety-eight percent of Bandung residents are backyard breeders, including the vets. 

In terms of the impact we've had towards humans, my natural connections with vets around Bandung has successfully sparked awareness. Information about TNR was known only to the younger vets, while vets of the older generation still believe that spay/neuter is sinful mutilation, and that breeding is necessary to keep pets healthy (otherwise they turn crazy, get sick or die), and there are many other false myths they still believe. Five years into the establishment of Whiskers' Syndicate, I see more vets suggesting TNR to commoners who pick up stray cats and dogs (out of pity), and recently l learned that more younger vets are offering discounted rates to people who bring in strays to get spayed and neutered. 

There's a real need for TNR in Indonesia.

This kitten was rescued by Josie after the typhoon blew through.

Walk us through a typical day for you.

You will see my head poking from behind my bedroom door at 3 a.m. Some of the cats are still sleeping by then. When they wake up a few minutes later they will find me cleaning the litter boxes, washing their cage trays, and cleaning the house.

When the sun rises at 6 a.m., the cats will have their breakfast. Then I will be occupied by my various side jobs. If I am not working in day shift, or if I can work at home I will be handling the sanctuary's accounting/finance/banking, replying emails, handling social media, blogging, or tending to our charity shop in Etsy.

Josie makes these catnip kitties and sells them on Etsy to raise funds -- they are best sellers!

Other times, I am doing the laundry or rushing cats to the vet. In the afternoon, I roam the streets of Bandung distributing food to the strays. In the evening, I am often visiting the cemeteries where abandoned cats or dogs ghoulishly call grave sites their home. I usually call it a day at 11 pm, but on days when I need to respond to with grant writers or charity givers from abroad, I skip my sleep all together so I can properly handle all the raised issues.

What are your greatest achievements to date?

The Whiskers' Syndicate was chosen as Shelter of the Month in August 2012, awarded by SPCA International. We were also the Charity of the Month for December 2013 by Etsy For Animals, a group of handcrafters who sell their products on Etsy to benefit animal charities around the world.

What would you like to accomplish in 2014?

Currently we are home to around 60 cats and kittens inhabiting 1,000 square feet. Following the unfortunate brush with Typhoon Haiyan last November, our sanctuary was flooded and damaged, forcing all the cats to crumple into a tiny 387-square-foot space.

These kittens are smart enough to stay away from the floodwaters.

The shelter is ready for reconstruction, but the cats still need beds and cat trees.

My biggest goal right now is to repair the sanctuary so that the resident "mobsters" can have better living conditions. We've managed to raise enough funds to start the repair, but we are still in need of replacements for all the toys, cat trees cat towers, and bedding that were damaged in the flood. I am sure the cats would love to have beds and cat trees again!

Would you like to donate to help the Whiskers Syndicate replace the much needed items for the sanctuary? Every little goes a long way! To donate, go to The Whiskers’ Syndicate Fundraising Page and follow the Whiskers' Syndicate on Facebook

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