Monday, 31 October 2022

Remembering My Mom's Affinity with Animals

It's a common notion that we either inherit our traits from our parents and grandparents or acquire them from the sum total of our life experiences and stock knowledge. I, for one, am certain that I inherited my mom's love for animals. But I developed my advocacy from experiences where I witnessed cruelty against animals that moved me to action.

All Souls Day is commemorated just one day in a year. But I think of my mom 365 days in a year. I think of the good days as well as the missed opportunities. Today I visited her at the San Agustin columbary with my dogs Kotton, Samedi and Dimanche. She loved dogs and cats and had many animal companions during her lifetime. Samedi and Dimanche (Saturday and Sunday, in French)  used to live in my parents' house. Unfortunately, she was already suffering from partial paralysis due to a stroke so she was not able to enjoy the company of the weekend duo.

When my brothers and I were growing up, our home was never without a dog. We had German shepherds, a dachshund named Pepper, and three dogs from San Fabian, Pangasinan who were named Topspin 1, 2 and 3. The dogs slept with us and played with us.
When we moved to our home in Quezon City in the late 60's, we had a furry pepper and salt mutt named Beawy (pronounced Behwee) who used to play hide and seek with Mom. She would hide inside the closets while Beawy would rush through each room to find her. 

One day years later, she told me that she had ordered one of their dogs to fetch his sister. Imagine her delight when the dog came back pulling his sister up the steps by her collar!

She also regaled me with colorful accounts of her favorite dog when she was a young girl and how he would sit and walk on his butt toward the gate to meet her after school.

Mom was also a lover of cats. She had many cats when she was growing up. I used to be terrified of cats, but when my favorite aunt, Tita Olga, insisted on giving me a Persian cat, I accepted. Mom was very fond of D'Artagnan and I left him with them when I pursued masteral studies in France.
Mom with D'Artagnan

After I came back, I found a match for D'Artagnan and their union gave us 2 beautiful kittens. I didn't know about neutering and spaying then, so the family expanded and Mom helped find people to adopt the kittens. She had favorites and she bought them fish and often checked on them.

I gave her a handsome grey Persian named Cyrus who resembled his grandfather. She renamed him Good Chi, and they became inseparable. He would accompany her to the toilet and stay with her. They watched television together, and Mom taught him to stay put while she and Dad prayed the rosary. All she had to say was, "Let's pray" and Good Chi would come running from wherever he was to take his place beside her.
Me, my mom and Good Chi

A firm believer in the Catholic faith, Mom kept several statues of saints in
their bedroom. Good Chi's favorite sleeping place was behind the statue of the Sacred Heart.

I remember getting a distressed phone call from her one day. She was sobbing because the dogs had entered the room and spooked Good Chi who ran outside and up the concrete fence. She climbed a ladder to get him, but he was so stressed that he bit her. But Mom understood that he didn't mean to hurt her. He was just terrified of the dogs.

My mom passed away in July 2016, and I have had several years of introspection regarding our relationship. I realize now that everything she did for me was out of love, because I was the only daughter and we are so much alike. And maybe she thought I needed guidance because of my stubborn nature. She used to come in my dreams and her kisses and hugs felt so real. She still does sometimes, and I cherish these  occasions.

If there is any truth to the belief that we choose our parents before we incarnate into this world, I know why I chose her. She was fiercely loyal to me, defending me against a world that barely understood my eccentricities. And I needed an anchor, a loving guide into the world of animals. 

My life now revolves around helping campus cats and dogs. I have given up a lot to do this because it has to be done and they need help and saving. The UP Diliman campus is not yet a safe haven for stray animals.

My mom and I at home

Whenever I face an obstacle to my goals, I talk to my mom and ask for help. Most of the time, things turn out well in ways unexpected.
I believe when you're on the right track, the Universe and your guardian angels will help you reach your goals. And there's Mom, too, helping make things happen for me from the spiritual world.

My mom and I together in Paris.

Sunday, 30 October 2022

The KOTTON Effect: The Story of UP Diliman's Top ESA


"Kotton Effect" is a term I coined back in 2019 when I observed how a thin and gentle stray dog at the UP College of Mass Communication (CMC) had won the hearts of many students. They fed him and caressed him and called him many names of endearment. 

He must have been about 3-4 months old when I first met him. He was blackish and mangy. I developed the habit of buying food for him and feeding him. He loved meat viands with sauce and rice. He started waiting for me at the parking lot of Plaridel Hall, and would run and leap on me with sheer joy. At first, I was afraid to touch him because of the small crawling insects I saw on his back. But he was insistent and wouldn't stop jumping on me until I gave him food and attention.

Underneath the dirty skin and fur, he was whitish. So I named him Cotton and promised him that one day he would be handsome and his fur would be as soft as cotton.

He was not the only dog at CMC. Another kind, motherly dog had enchanted the students and grown quite close to Kotton. I named her Chess, after her fur markings that looked like black and white pieces of a chessboard. Chess and Cotton were inseparable, like mother and son or better yet, like best friends.

Kotton was a roamer. Whenever I wanted to feed him or give him a bath, I would get into my car and scan the streets near Quezon Hall, College of Music and University Theater. He knew the sound of my car so he would run up to me. Or was it the smell?

Before the pandemic, the security guards, students and staff loved Cotton and Chess. The guards shared their lunch and dinner with both dogs, the students bought barbecue for them and Katkat, a member of the CMC staff, found sponsors so they could have regular meals, rain or shine.

When the opportunity came for a free neutering in early 2018, I took Chess to the Institute of Biology for spaying. Cotton was nowhere to be found. But I asked the kind vets for meds to cure him of mange. 

A few months later, another opportunity came for free neutering. To make sure that Cotton would be there the following day, I leashed him to one of the sheds the night before the surgery. The guard said Kotton had wailed all night. I had no car the following day, so my plan was to load him into the garbage truck I had managed to borrow from the Campus Maintenance Office to pick up all other stray dogs for neutering. But Cotton refused to jump up the truck without me. So the men helped me up and once he saw me on the back of the truck, he jumped right in.

When the pandemic hit us in March 2020 and the first lockdown was declared on March 15, I rushed to UP to check on the roaming dogs at CMC and Quezon Hall who had become my friends. I found Chess at CMC, searching for food. Kotton and Harry were at Quezon Hall with resident dogs Tisay and Lakan or Macho. The guards had been sharing their food with them. They were thin, dirty, hungry and begging for food and reassurance. Their whimpering broke my heart. I made the decision to bring Kotton, Chess and Harry to Balay Kaibigan where they could have meals and baths.


FAST FORWARD TO 2022. Cotton, the once skinny and mangy dog, is now a UP Diliman Emotional Support Animal (ESA) as well as a SAGIP campus search and rescue K9. People who touch him never fail to praise his soft, clean fur. He is now the COTTON I promised he would be.

The only problem is that he is a clingy dog. He became clingy because he was sad during the days when I wasn't around in the campus.  But when a virus broke out in Balay Kaibigan where he had been living for more than 2 years, I took him home. He was the happiest dog in the world! The days of waiting for me were over.

I now call him my "white shadow". His days of uncertainty, of not knowing whether I would visit him, are gone. Now, he never tires of following me from room to room and up and down the stairs. I can feel his eyes take in my every move, whether I'm drinking a glass of water or working on my laptop. Thankfully, he falls asleep when he knows I will be working for hours.


In January 2021, I submitted a proposal to train a group of UPD stray dogs to become search and rescue dogs. The idea was that they would help find missing persons in case of an earthquake or other emergency in the campus. Kotton became my K9, and I his handler. I had always dreamed of training a dog who would be my buddy everywhere I go. Well, this was it. This was when he became KOTTON (with a K) and we became the "K Team".

Together with 10 other campus dogs, we train on Saturdays, under rain and sun. We do night searches. We train in different buildings, colleges, the UPD lagoon and open fields. My skin gained a reddish tan and Kotton built muscles. Kotton, who looks like he is half-Labrador, is talented but stubborn. Sometimes it's a test of wills when I give the command "Sit" and "Stay". Most of the time, the standoff is solved by Jollibee chicken treats.

The other dogs in the group are also good searchers. Short-legged Nano, Amore, Dagz, Bar and Maroon can find people hiding in the bushes or in clutter-filled rooms in record time. The medium-sized aspins or asong Pinoy (local dogs) do equally well in field searches and building searches. The dogs have become friends and always look forward to Saturday trainings. The handlers, an eclectic mix of faculty, residents, staff, students, security guards and Social Services Brigade personnel (SSB), have learned to work as a team. 


 Together with Tisay, another friendly aspin from Quezon Hall or UPD's "seat of power", Kotton was presented to UP officials as an "emotional support dog" in February 2019. Former UPD Chancellor Michael Tan had told me days earlier that he had to introduce the concept of "tapping our campus dogs as emotional support animals" because certain officials were planning to have the dogs rounded up and brought to the pound soon. So at 6:30pm on that day, Dr. Tan called Kotton and Tisay to the stage. I had the honor of bringing in one of UP's first emotional support dogs.

 The strategy was brilliant. While Dr. Tan was talking and pointing at him, Kotton faced the audience and sat down. He took in all the lights and the attention. The audience roared in delight. That's where I realized that Kotton loves the limelight.

The press had been invited to cover the big event which marked the 70th anniversary of the transfer of the UP campus to Diliman from its original campus in Ermita. The celebration included music, dances and speeches from the university's top officials. But the news that came out the following day focused mostly on Kotton and Tisay and their role as the first emotional support dogs in the campus.

After that, Kotton and I were requested to visit the Diliman Learning and Research Center to help the students relax while they worked on their theses and other requirements or prepared for midterm and final exams.

On our first visit, a student working at her laptop suddenly reached out to Kotton. She asked if she could touch and hug him. I said yes, and kept a watchful eye on them as she hugged Kotton and talked to him. I saw her several times in the following days, so I asked her what exactly was Kotton's impact on her.


"On the first day that Kotton passed by me, I was struggling with my thesis. I had reached a dead end and knew I wouldn't be able to finish it in time. That meant I wouldn't graduate, and I didn't know how to tell my parents. So at that moment, I was thinking about ending my life. Then Kotton came," she recalled. 

I was dumbfounded. So Kotton had that effect on people! He distracts them and pulls them away from dark thoughts and helps them back to the present. And he gives them hope. 

The more I see The Kotton Effect, the more I learn to respect Kotton. He allows strangers to touch him, but it is my role to protect him. It's no joke to have 6 pairs of hands on your head or your body. I have to make sure Kotton is not uncomfortable. So I limit interactions to 30 minutes then we take a 30-minute break.


Now that Kotton lives with me, it's like having my personal ESA. He forces me to walk daily. I sleep late so I'm too lazy to wake up early and walk, but I have to because he won't poop nor pee inside the house.

Kotton also makes me laugh...a lot. He and my female dog Dimanche have really hit it off, and now I have two dogs sleeping with me in the room. It's been barely two months, but Kotton has told me in so many ways that he no longer wants to live in Balay Kaibigan. We go there for visits, but he's here to stay. We still do Saturday trainings and we have been requested to start ESA duties again at DLRC. We will continue to do that as volunteers. But there's no more question about where Kotton will stay. He has a real home now.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

M I N E!

Over the centuries, man has been referred to as a dog’s “master” and “owner” while the dog has been described as man’s “constant companion” and even his “best friend”. Lately, the idea of ownership has evolved radically. Advocates of animal rights and welfare say their dogs own them and choose them. Just who owns who would indeed make a hot topic for discussion.

In the 2010 film documentary titled “Mine”, the subject is explored once again in the wake of events that arose right after Hurricane Katrina. Writer / Director  Geralyn Pezanoski quite successfully captured the angst and depression that plagued those who thought they had lost their dogs forever, the anger of those who discovered that their dogs had been adopted by families and couldn’t get them back and those who had adopted the dogs and didn’t want to give them up, and finally the elation of those who were reunited with their beloved furry companions.

The viewer experiences a mix of sympathy and frustration over what may be seen as the stupidity of men as the fight over ownership of the Katrina dogs turned ugly and political. We see shades of racial bias and social inequity as hurricane victims and adoptive families battled  over legal custody of the rescued dogs.


Hurricane Katrina hit the state of Louisiana on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005 with winds lashing at 280 kms per hour. About 80% of New Orleans was destroyed and the floodwaters stayed for several weeks.

Other areas devastated by the hurricane included Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, Cuba and the Bahamas.  It is considered one of the five deadliest natural catastrophes to hit the United States, killing 1800 people and destroying the homes of millions more. More than 700 people are still missing and damages have been estimated at more than 100 billion dollars.

Although mandatory evacuation of the residents began 2-3 days before the hurricane made landfall, government response to the catastrophe has been criticized as being ill-prepared and slow. Animals were not allowed into the shelters so some residents who refused to leave their animals behind died during the storm.  

Residents like Gloria, a senior citizen living on her own, repeatedly promised her dog Murphy Brown that she would not abandon him. But when the National Guardsmen came to take her, they gave her two choices: to go with them willingly or to be taken forcibly to a shelter. Neither option included Murphy Brown. So Gloria was forcibly taken from her home and her dog. She was placed in an evacuation shelter in St. Louis, Missouri for several weeks.

All throughout her stay in the shelter, she never gave up hope of finding Murphy Brown. People soon learned about her story and volunteers launched a campaign to find the dog. He had been adopted by a couple in California and renamed “Shadow”.  The couple willingly returned Murphy Brown to Gloria and arranged for “visiting rights”. Gloria and the couple, Ron and Ellen, soon became good friends. When she died in March 2008, Gloria stated in her will that Murphy Brown should go back to them.

Other residents had to take care of family members first. Although they wanted to bring their animals with them, the shelters were strict about their no-animals policy.

Days after the storm, volunteers from welfare organizations like Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) arrived to rescue the animals left at home. Many animals were able to make their way to the rooftops. But I remember a scene where rescuers had to drill a hole on a roof so they could get to a huge black dog barking below. The dogs, intelligent beings that they are, knew these people were there to save them so they willingly squeezed through windows and holes to get to the rescuers.

But it was more difficult to find the cats because as one woman put it, “Dogs bark. Cats don’t.”


In the end, more than 500 shelters in Canada and the United States took in some 15,000 animals from the battered Gulf States.  The plan was to save the animals  first then find their owners next. But while rescue efforts proved successful for many four-legged creatures, reuniting them with their human families proved to be a mess. In the melee that followed, records got lost and the animals, the dogs especially, were considered “orphans” and adopted out to families across the country.

 Then Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana on September 23, three weeks after  Katrina.        

 Damages from this second hurricane were estimated at some 11 billion dollars although only about 120 people were killed.  Rita further  nixed whatever chances there were of reuniting dogs with their families in Louisiana.

In New Orleans alone, rescuers estimate that about 150,000 animals died in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It’s like a wave of depression comes over you because you made a mistake... of leaving your companion behind,” says Victor Marino who was forced to leave his white pit bull Max behind.

Victor recalled how Max would circle the dining table to get scraps during meals. But as Victor circled his house, he was gladly surprised to see paw prints on the ground which indicated that Max was able to jump from the second floor to the ground probably after the water had subsided.

In a desperate attempt to find his dog, Victor scanned the petfinder database online for five months. Several calls confirmed that his dog Max was already living with a family who loved him very much in Florida. His new name was Joey.

Victor never gave up and kept calling Max’s new family. At first, the adoptive family was adamant and refused to give him back.  They felt that Victor had abandoned Max and so did not deserve him. Both parties called the dog “Mine”. But after numerous calls, the family in Florida finally gave in. Joey became Max again and went back home to Louisiana.

Before Katrina, Malvin, an African-American senior citizen, lived alone with his white poodle, Bandit. Their lives revolved around each other so Malvin was devastated to find Bandit gone when he got home. But volunteers took up his cause and Malvin built a new wooden dog house in anticipation of Bandit’s return.

Meanwhile, Bandit, now renamed Lucky Louie, had been adopted by a family that was crazy about him. With the intervention of volunteer trackers, Lucky Louie’s new family decided to give him back  to Malvin after a year.

Jessie James Pullins, on the other hand, had to evacuate 20 family members and couldn’t take his dog JJ with them to the shelter. “I often think of that moment... how JJ must have been there and I wasn’t there,” he says ruefully as guilt and sadness set in.

Jessie James was able to locate the shelter that took JJ in but shelter officials refused to disclose the whereabouts of his new family. An official kept on saying that Jessie couldn’t blame her for the mess because she did what she thought was best for the dog. Jessie hired a pro bono lawyer to help him get JJ back. After more than a year, JJ’s new family agreed to give him back then suddenly cut off all communication and disappeared with the dog.

The last case featured in the film documentary was that of Linda and the family’s German shepherd, Precious. Linda said she wasn’t able to take Precious because she had to prioritize her family and her mother in a wheel chair. Rescuers were able to save Precious and successfully re-home her in another state. Her new name was Katia.

Katia seemed happy in Texas with her new family who doted on her. Of course, they refused to give her up and even hired a lawyer for the lawsuit filed by Linda. Volunteers had also raised funds for Linda’s lawyer but the case stalled when the funds ran out. The case was eventually dismissed in Louisiana.

The adoptive family claimed that Katia’s previous owners did not take good care of her because she had heartworms and signs of having been caged when they acquired her. The lawyer also stressed that if Linda and her family had really considered the dog as one of them, they would not have left her behind.


After the hurricanes, the US Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) that mandated states to include pets in their disaster evacuation plans. That’s a landmark law, one that
I hope will also be done in the Philippines.  After all, the bond between animal and humans could be as strong and long-lasting as the bond between humans.

Animal organizations, particularly in the United States, have a pretty good track record of rescues in times of natural disasters. But they must improve their tracking system so there can be a more systematic and efficient way to trace and reunite humans and their animal companions.

I really hope we will never experience a tragedy like Katrina. But if it’s fated, then only early preparations can mitigate the damage that nature could create in all fury. Official  disaster evacuation plans should include the animals. But we must have our own plans for our human families and animal companions, too.

Lastly, like the animal rescue teams, many Americans were quick to judge and blame the Louisiana residents for the fate of the animals left behind.  People presumed that the residents did not care much for the animals. But many of them did. Sweeping generalizations are almost never good. With their homes destroyed and their friends and family either killed or missing, some survivors fought to get their dogs back because they were the only living link to a past obliterated by the floodwaters of Katrina.   


Published in Animal Scene Magazine in May 2010

Monday, 19 August 2013


                             STUDENTS AND THEIR STRESS BUSTERS

                                                  By Khrysta Imperial Rara

          It’s common knowledge today that stress is the leading cause of most killer diseases like cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. Everyone is prone to stress which can be found everywhere from the home to school and the office. You can even get stressed while on vacation. Stress is a state of mind, which means it all depends on how you handle situations or people. You can either laugh it off or die from it.

          There are many ways to deal with stress. Listen to music, do sports or exercise, practice tai chi, watch television or a movie, talk to your best friend or even cook. Some people, however, make the wrong choice and resort to illegal drugs, smoking, excessive eating, or bitching. Stress can bring out the worst in you unless you find the best way to cope with it.

          School, in particular, can be a real headache particularly when it’s time for paper submissions and final examinations. Last March, some students talked about their stress busters on the weekly program Kwentuhang Pets Atbp aired in DZUP 1602am every Thursday. Here are their stories.


          Anj is an incoming fourth year Journalism major. Her family loves animals so they always have pets like chickens, goldfish, rabbits and dogs. A seven-year old Labrador named Donkey, named after one of the animal characters in the movie “Shrek”, was her closest friend. She also considered him as her “stress-buster”.

When she was in first year high school, she was given the responsibility of taking care of Donkey. He was still a puppy then, so cute and only as big as her hand. “Every time I would be doing assignments, he would cry a lot. So while I was working, I would pick him up, put him on my lap and he would stop crying because he was comfortable there,” she quipped.

“Then I would be able to write my paper well because of the warmth he gave me and the inspiration that he released in me,” she said.

          Anj recalls that after a stressful week at the university, she would always look forward to going home because she knew that Donkey would be waiting for her at the gate. They spent a lot of time together hugging, playing, cuddling and she would always pat and stroke him. When he saw that she was tired, he would just sit beside her and put his head on her lap. Or he would stand on his hind legs and put his paws on her face and she would then hug him.

“It was comforting to know that he was there for me, always sympathizing with me. I missed him and he missed me,” she confided.

          She says Donkey was always part of the family and included in family activities. Whenever possible, they would take him with them during family trips. Unfortunately, Donkey suddenly died from heat stroke last March, a few days after the school year ended. Anj didn’t even get to see him because she only goes home on weekends.

          Anj also made an interesting observation. “Animals are connected to the life force of their human companions,” she quips. She explained that when her father passed away due to cancer, their two dogs – an American bulldog named Muning and a Labrador named Gus - followed him after a few months. “Even the garden died with him,” she said.


          Graduating student Edward Lemuel Castro has a white cat named Myuning to help him relax after a stressful day. Myuning was already a constant visitor at their new house by the time Edward’s family moved in. But unlike other transients who would come and go, Myuning stayed and took her chances with the new residents.

“ She meows when she’s hungry and we give her food. Then she quiets down,” Edward says. “She’s really sweet and that’s why we like her.”

Edward confides that Myuning makes him smile with her antics. “I often come home tired because of the demands of schoolwork and traffic. But when my siblings tell me they found Myuning inside the room or the car and they don’t know how she got there, we laugh about it because we are bewildered by how she pulls it off. Then she just meows loudly to tell us she’s inside,” he recounts.


          Renson Sioson of the Technological Institute of the Philippines becomes emotional when he recalls the adventures he shared with his former dog, Bruce. Bruce, who was of Rottweiler and pitbull parentage, used to massage Rens to chase the blues away. He was also fiercely loyal and protective of his young human friend.

          “Once, Bruce saved me from several dogs that were chasing me. We tried to outrun them. We ran and we ran and we ran. Then one of the dogs caught up with me and bit me. Then Bruce bit the dog and there was a nasty fight. I pitied Bruce. I tried to stop the fight and I felt like I was the one being attacked,” he said. “Bruce did not give up trying to save me until the other dogs left. They got scared of him because he was big.”

Bruce suffered from a broken leg and a nasty bite from that incident. But Rens still can’t get over the fact that his dog was killed by his father’s friend.

Bruce died when we left him with my father’s friend. We didn’t have a car then so my father told us we would leave Bruce with his drinking buddy. When we got back, I was shocked that Bruce was dead,” he said ruefully. “I learned later that they ate him.”

Rens confesses that he got really depressed after Bruce’s death and his grades suffered in his sophomore year. He sought comfort in exotic pets like snakes and spiders but it just didn’t work out. But he smiles when he talks about Cali, his dog of Pomeranian-Japanese Spitz mix whom he acquired after Bruce. He describes Cali as a very playful dog who helped him get over his depression. With Cali, he learned to relax and enjoy life again. He also credits Cali with helping him study for his exams and therefore passing all his subjects.

DE-STRESS WITH YOUR ANIMALS                              

Many studies now show that animals and animal-related activities provide a wonderful way to de-stress. Watching birds in the wild can be liberating while watching fish swimming in an aquarium can put you in a meditative state. Stroking or massaging a dog or cat reduces the heart rate for both you and the animal. 

Talking to them or laughing at their antics lowers blood pressure. Perhaps it’s because we feel we don’t have to perform the way we do when we are with people. We don’t fear rejection when we’re with animals because they are always ready to give us unconditional love. 


Published in ANIMAL SCENE magazine June 2012

Friday, 2 August 2013

UP Feline Security At Work


On an ordinary school day, a grayish brown ball of fur curls up at the top of the concrete steps leading to the entrance of the College of Mass Communication (CMC) at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. The furry ball sleeps through all the noise and movement of the students, personnel, faculty and visitors to the college. Once in a while, a student kneels down to stroke the sleeping feline. She opens an eye and raises her head to acknowledge the gesture, then purrs to show her contentment.

Kitkat is one of CMC’s four resident cats. She blends with the grey concrete steps but no one has ever made the mistake of stepping on her – her curled up body is such a usual sight that the scene seems unfinished without her. In fact, she spices up the drab colors of the main building. It is not unusual for visitors to suddenly twist their heads to take a closer look at the cat, as if trying to confirm what their eyes had seen just a second before.

When she’s not napping, Kitkat stands like a sentry at the entrance door. Nothing escapes her scrutiny. She approaches the edge of the steps when she sees a friend – both human and feline. She then gently rubs her body against the person’s leg and mouths a soundless miaow to welcome her friend.

I feel lucky and honored that Kitkat considers me a friend. Often, when I arrive at school, she runs to the car to greet me and walks with me to the steps. When I leave at night, she escorts me back to the car and watches as I drive off. According to CMC security guard Rey Villaruz, she does that only to me.

Villaruz is Kitkat’s buddy. While she takes her morning siesta, Villaruz is just a few feet away, sitting at his desk or standing by the entrance, patiently watching the people entering and exiting from the open glass door. The door stays open till 9:00 pm so he must guard it, ensuring that no troublemakers make it past the steps. At noon, he takes his lunch, making sure that Kitkat gets her share of his food, too. At the very least, she gets to eat rice and soup with chicken bones.

“The cats are part of our daily life here. I pity the cats when I see them starving so I share my food with them,” admits Villaruz who was first assigned to the college in August 2009.

Villaruz, it seems, is not the only one whose heart goes out to the cats. Aside from students and faculty, Villaruz’s fellow security guards Ryan Bayabas and Maumen Kuli share his love for the college cats and feed them leftovers.


Contrary to what many would think, the CMC cats are not mere hangers-on. Neither are they opportunists. They know they can find a meal on ordinary days at the college, but they also know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. They pay for their meals by rendering service – they patrol the grounds and kill the rodents that cross their path. Villaruz says he used to see dead rats lying around in the college grounds in the morning.


“I’ve seen them kill big rats. That’s a big help for our college equipment and sanitation,” Villaruz averred. “That’s why we need the cats here.”

His colleague, former CMC security guard Aris Vicente, was even more direct. “They kill the rats that climb into my drawer to eat my food,” he said. “These cats are my friends.”

Vicente, who has since been assigned to another post, recounts how Butterfinger, a large orange male tabby, accompanies him on his rounds at night. “Sometimes, he would inspect the place even before I did then we would just meet in the upper floors,” he recalls.

And when the cats made strange noises in the middle of the night, it alerted him and off he would go to check it out. “They really kept me on my toes,” he said.

Villaruz has his own security story to tell. Once, while on night shift in July last year, the stillness was broken when Kitkat suddenly jumped in front of him. Her fur stood on end and her body was tense. It was nearly midnight and Villaruz couldn’t see anything or anyone beyond the dimly-lit college parking.

But he knew there had to be something out there because of the way Kitkat went on red alert. Carefully, he examined the dark for any traces of movement or sound. Seconds later, he was able to discern a shadow behind one of the trees. It turned out to be a scavenger on a midnight hunt. The man had a bottle of water in his hand and was about to club him had he not turned around in time.

“That man could have knocked me out and grabbed my gun,” Villaruz said, adding that it has happened several times already to other night guards on duty.

“I would feel bad if these cats disappear. Night duty would become very lonely. With these cats by my side, I feel safe,” he quips.


Ryan Villareal, a fourth year journalism student, says the cats make him smile because of their playfulness and distinct personalities. He and his friends hang out in an area not far from the canteen and they get to mingle with the felines daily. “We know who among them is the mischievous one, the playful one, the pregnant one,” he says. “It is amazing how the cats have inched their way into our daily tambay and college moments.”

He recalls that he and his groupmates did a short video feature on the cats last year. “One of the best things that a student said during an interview was that she feels at home when she sees the cats because she remembers their family pet and it makes student life more bearable,” Villareal recounts.

“So whenever I see a cat popping out from a stack of readings in the photocopy area,
prancing on the tables in the cafeteria, or following you around while you eat your pasta Bolognese, it does not freak me out or disgust me. Instead it makes me forget my fatigue and stress,” he said.

Another fourth year student, Journalism major Khate Manalo, explained in an email message that the presence of the cats inside the U.P. campus helps develop compassion among the students. “They remind us that we have a responsibility toward animals and we cannot think only of ourselves,” she writes.

Khate admits, though, that she is not close to the cats. “We just greet each other. At first, they were evasive and snobbish,” she admits. But she had the chance to bond with them last December and discovered that they are, after all, “malambing”.

“Since then, they greet me with their miaows when I call them or stroke them. I would like to think that they know me now,” she says.

She admits that student life can indeed be stressful and “the gentle nature of the cats calms us”.


At present, all four feline residents of CMC are female. Two belong to one family - Kitkat is the matriarch and her daughter is Twix. Twix is as orange as Kitkat’s best friend M&M. A third still unnamed cat took up residence in the college late last year. All three have just given birth.

Butterfinger, who lives in the neighboring College of Music, comes for a visit several times a week. He is probably the father of all the kittens.

I can never forget a scene I witnessed last year. I arrived at the college one Monday morning and saw the usually shy Butterfinger hanging out with Kitkat and their two orange kittens. They were all stretched out and relaxing at the top of the stairs.

This scene was unusual because like shy lovers trying to keep a secret, the couple (Butterfinger and Kitkat) have their trysts under the cars or behind the shrubs. Their 2 kittens were always more visible as they spent their days by the guards’ radio, listening and watching while learning from their mother and the guards.

It was a rare sight, made all the more special because it was Feb. 14, 2011 – Valentine’s Day. Butterfinger stayed around and enjoyed the company of his family for the entire morning then went back to his favorite haunts in the early afternoon.


To people who know Kitkat, there is no doubt about her innate intelligence. She knows just what to do and what is expected of her. As part of my hosting routine for my weekly radio program Kwentuhang Pets Atbp (KPA) on DZUP, I greet each of the CMC cats on air and the security guards as well. So every Thursday at noon, I tell Kitkat to listen to the program and my greetings for her. According to Villaruz, when the KPA theme song starts playing, Kitkat heads for the radio on the concrete floor and lies down next to it, her ears cocked and eyes wide open. He says she also stands up and walks away as soon as I do my closing lines.

One day, I forgot to greet her on the air. After the program, she was waiting at the top of the steps for me, the way she does every Thursday at 2pm. But this time, when I tried to touch and stroke her, she ignored me, turned her back on me and walked away. I then realized that I had forgotten to greet her on air!


There are still many people who cannot stand the sight of animals on campus. But their number is definitely diminishing. In other universities abroad, pets are even allowed to stay in the dorms.


As for the CMC cats, guards and students, the friendship is based on the mutual need for companionship and security. “We can’t really call them strays because the students feed them and there are people caring for them,” Vicente remarked.

Villareal adds: “I don’t see anything wrong with them being on campus. They are part of the UP community just as we are. We just have to understand the cats’ behavior and lifestyle so that we can live harmoniously with them.”

             Published in the ANIMAL SCENE magazine, May 2012
             (click to enlarge magazine images)

Monday, 27 May 2013


Now that former President Joseph Estrada is now the Mayor of Manila, 
I hope he will fulfill his promise of sending Mali to the sanctuary in Thailand.
Below is my latest article on Mali.

            A better life for Mali.

            That’s the claim that has fueled the tug war between Manila officials and the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

            PETA wants Mali transferred to the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand where she will have hundreds of acres of land to roam, other elephants to play and bond with, and lots of natural stimulation for her mental, physical and emotional health.

            Public support for the PETA proposal is increasing. Frequent media coverage has made the Filipino public aware of Mali’s plight. The list of legislators, politicians, church leaders, prominent personalities and even international experts and famous animal activists all demanding Mali’s transfer to BLES has grown in the last few months. 

Manila zoo officials, on the other hand, want Mali to remain in the zoo, alone and miserable, sans the expert care and proper conditions she needs for her physical health and sans the company of other elephants that she needs to lead a normal life.

            Zoo officials, with the obstinate and misguided support of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, claim Mali will have a better life if she remains in Manila because she grew up here and this is the only life she knows.

            They also claim that Mali will be sedated during her flight to BLES and this could kill her.

  But according to CITES regulations, elephants cannot be sedated during trips except in extreme circumstances to prevent injury to the animal or to the  people around her. Sedation is not advised because animals in a lethargic state may be more vulnerable to injury during the trip.

           In March 2011, US Association of Zoos and Aquariums set up standards for elephant management and care . By 2016, all zoos with elephants must keep a minimum of three female elephants. Zoos which do not follow this must transfer their elephants to other zoos.

          For elephants, their herd is everything. Females stay with their families for lifei and males stay until their early teens. They need to be in the company of elephants.

          In the Upper House, at least four legislators – Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago, Chiz Escudero, Manny Villar and Lito Lapid – have each filed resolutions to facilitate Mali’s transfer to BLES and assess the situation of animals in zoos and sanctuaries all over the country. Some of the resolutions are also asking for an assessment of animal welfare enforcement in the country.


           For centuries, elephants have been flown from Africa and Asia to zoos all over the world. Circus elephants have travelled by train and truck from city to city. Long-distance travel for this giant creatures is never easy, specially if the destination is a place that is so different from their home environment. But through the years, elephant experts have developed a protocol to facilitate the transfer of elephants to faraway destinations and minimize their stress during the trip.

          According to PETA’s proposal for Mali’s transfer, several steps have to be taken to prepare her for the trip.
     Travel Training

         Mali must learn to allow veterinarians to take blood samples and care for her feet. This is important because early diagnosis of diseases can save an elephant’s life. The blood chemistry results are needed for the travel permits.

            A method called “protected contact” will allow a vet to get the samples
            Without using ropes, chains and bullhooks. These were used to train and
punish stubborn elephants before but are now unacceptable by today’s
standards. Only metal screens, bars and restraint chutes separate the animals from their handlers. Positive reinforcement has replaced punishment in elephant management.

To allow the application of “protected contact”, Mali’s enclosure at the Manila zoo will have to be modified. The daily training for Mali’s foot care  will take one to three weeks while training for blood work will need a few more months. Everything will depend on Mali’s cooperation.

2.     Travel Permits

Mali will also need a travel permits from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The export permit will come from the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) which is the CITES authority in the Philippines. The CITES authority from Thailand will also have to issue an import permit and determine the appropriate quarantine procedures.

3.     Transport Crates

Elephants always travel in specially designed crates that have to be
Approved by and the International Air Transport Association. The crate will measure 7.5 ft x 12 ft x 18 ft on the outside and 6.5 ft x 10 ft x 17 ft on the inside. The team that will accompany Mali will have three feet of space from where they can monitor her during the flight. PETA will either borrow a crate from a cargo company or have one built for Mali. Training to enter the crate will take more or less a month.

A crane will lift the crate onto a flatbed truck for the trip to the airport.

4.     Travel Companions

PETA has arranged for an elephant expert to accompany Mali to BLES. This person will come months before the trip to help train Mali and bond with her. An expert in transporting elephants and one person from the Manila zoo will also be on Mali’s travel team.

An air logistics expert will be consulted to make minimize the stress for Mali.

5.     The Trip

From Manila Zoo, the trip to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport
will take about 30 minutes. Loading her onto the cargo plane via conveyor belt will take another hour. PETA will commission the truck and plane. Only a C-17 or a front-loading Boeing 747 can fly an elephant.

The trip to Sukhothai airport in Thailand will last four hours and the trip to BLES may take one to two hours. All in all, Mali will be traveling a total of 9.5 hours.


            BLES is a 400-acre land in Sukhothai, northern Thailand that is home to 14 elephants rescued from abusive owners and retired from heavy work like carrying logs.  It was set up in April 2006 by Katherine Connor, a former London-based retail manager who traveled to several countries in Asia and ended up falling in love with a baby elephant named Boon Lott. The baby elephant was prone to accidents and eventually died. But Katherine was marked for life. She raised money to buy land and set up a sanctuary, eventually marrying Anon, a mahout she had befriended while she was caring for Boon Lott at an elephant hospital.

            The sanctuary has banana plantations, grasslands, open fields, rivers and all types of fruit trees. The elephants there are not used for profit and never forced to perform. All they do everyday is play, roam, forage, swim and bond.

            Captive elephants often suffer from foot infections and arthritis due to the hard concrete surface of their living quarters in zoos. Their tails often get infected after repetitively hitting concrete walls and metal barriers.They need natural substrates and large areas so they can exercise and roam and bond. Elephants roam up to 50 kms a day.

            The BLES caretakers are confident that Mali will integrate well with the other resident Asian elephants. For the first six months, Mali will have 5 acres to herself while acclimatizing to her new home. She will have a huge bathing pond. Although the area will be fenced, she can already interact with the other elephants. They will wait till Mali is ready to join the herd. A webcam will be set up so Filipinos can watch Mali’s progress.

Filipinos can learn much more about elephants by observing Mali in her new home than watching her Mali in the artificial zoo environment.
Wildlife experts agree that elephants are extremely intelligent and curious animals with complex social lives. They think, decide and act, very much like people.

After spending 36 years of her life in Manila zoo, Mali may experience confusion and stress for the first few months. But the excitement of a new life, stimulation from her natural surroundings, the company of members of her kind as well the care she will getting from her caretakers will see her through this period.


Securing Mali in the crate and loading onto truck –             1 hr
Ground transport from zoo to Manila airport –                   0.5 hr
Loading crate onto aircraft –                                             1 hr
Flight time from Manila to Sukhothai airport –                    4 hrs
Unloading from aircraft and customs clearance –               1.5 hrs
Transport to sanctuary –                                                   1 hr
Unloading from truck to sanctuary –                                  0.5 hr

Total –                                                                             9.5 hrs


Zoos that have closed or are closing their elephant exhibits

All zoos in India
Alaska Zoo, US
Bristol Zoo, UK
Bronx Zoo, US
Chehaw Wild Animal Park, US
Detroit Zoo, US
Dudley Zoo, UK
Edinburgh Zoo, UK
Frank Buck Zoo, US
Gladys Porter Zoo, US
Greater Vancouver Zoo, Canada
Henry Vilas Zoo, US
Lincoln Park Zoo, US
Lion Country Safari, US
London Zoo, UK
Longleat Safari Park, UK
Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, US
Mesker Park Zoo, US
Philadelphia Zoo, US
Sacramento Zoo, US
San Francisco Zoo, US
Santa Barbara Zoo, US

Published in ANIMALSCENE magazine April 2013