It started with three
About three weeks ago I was on my way through the alley to head to the local convenience store. As I exited the alley I saw three kittens eating fish out of a flattened basket on top of a 2 meter high stone wall. As I approached a local woman hit the basket with her hand, and one of the kittens flew out of the basket and fell to the ground below. That is the first time I met the little white kitten pictured just below. I call him Kasper.
When I arrived back at our apartment I told Shalma about the kittens. The next day she would get to meet them for the first time.
When we went down into the alley way there were only two kittens there. They chased after us, frantically meowing. It was Kasper and the kitten who we would later bestow with the moniker of Scruffles. We felt bad for the beasts and went to the convienience store and bought them a can of cat food. They began to gorge themselves and Scruffles would not let Kasper near the food. Below are pictures of our meeting with these little ones.
After our meeting with Scruffles and Kasper, Shalma and I went around the corner to a Lebanese restaurant and cafe called Aroma and met another kitten living in a plant pot. He had been living at the cafe for several days. He was extremely skinny and unwell. The owner of the cafe later told us that the cat had accepted some food and water the first day he arrived at their business but refused to eat or drink for several days afterward.
This little black cat was one of the sweetest things I have come across in this world. So neglected by life, and without a mother, he was magically full of love. He made quiet meows from his resting place in the planter. I peered over the table at him. He wanted so badly to love and be loved (yeah, this is an anthropomorphism and I don’t care) that he jumped onto the table, inspected my beer, then eventually settled, curled up like a furry snail shell, next to Shalma’s hip. We kind of wanted to give him loves, but he was so dirty we feared what kind of diseases he might share with us.
Cambodia: A cruel world for domesticated animals
We had no intention of giving these cats a home. We had already witnessed pretty terrible animal cruelty in this country. We had seen live chickens tied together by their broken legs, pigs in tiny cages on the back of 125cc motor scooters, presumably headed to slaughter. Aside from the more abhorrent things we witnessed, we simply saw neglect. And who could blame people who make less than $120 a month for being neglectful of the world around them that they are powerless to influence?
Shalma and I accepted that this was the life that animals must live in Cambodia; this was their lot. In that acceptance, we decided to help just a little and fed the two cats another time. We figured the restaurant cat would be taken care of, although Shalma had tried to feed him and he had refused food. I think we both put him out of our mind and began to focus on our little alley cats. After all, they were the critters on our front stoop.
Kasper went missing
A few days after we fed the cats Kasper seemed to vanish. He was gone. Baby kittens easily become victims of predation, often from feral dogs, but sometimes from wild animals as well. They also have a great deal of trouble regulating their body heat and frequently die of exposure even in a tropical environment such as this. It was the peak of the rainy season, so it may be that Kasper got drenched in water and died of cold. Shalma and I wanted to believe that he was somehow rescued, but we have failed to delude ourselves. I really liked that cat, and I am sorry he is dead. Scruffles was now all alone in the alley.
About a week after our first meeting wth the kittens we walked by the restaurant and saw the little black kitten. He looked dead, like a carcass, a hollow shell that shouldn’t remain living. His eyes were swollen almost shut and appeared to popping out of the sockets in his emaciated head. There was a thick film, and he was essentially blind. He responded neither to sound nor touch. This was one sick animal, a truly pitiful sight. We went home and neither of us were happy about the state of suffering we saw this poor creature in.
Shalma was almost frantic in her sadness and concern. She asked if she could bring him upstairs right then and there and I told her that I thought it would not be a good idea. As much as I would like to lie, I shall refrain; neither of us had a dry eye. We were both profoundly affected by the suffering we saw. Shalma asked if we could take him to an animal hospital in the morning. I agreed. Then, in the most solemn of moments, Shalma exclaimed, “I will go down and get him first thing in the morning!” She wasn’t joking.
Shalma tossed and turned throughout the night. She was absolutely unsettled by the plight of this kitten. I hardly got a wink of sleep due to her restlessness. Needless to say, Shalma is really special to me largely because of her compassion. True to her word, she was up at six in the morning. She dragged me out of bed and we went down the seven flights of stairs and around the corner to look for the little black cat. He was nowhere to be found, and I realized that I still had not opened my right eye yet. The left side of my brain must have remained asleep throughout the whole ordeal!
We went back upstairs and had a couple more hours of restless sleep. We went back downstairs at about 9:30 and found him curled up in a little ball on the pavement. He looked even worse than he had the day before. It was almost unbelievable that an animal could look worse and still remain alive. The security guard of the little market next to the restaurant told us that he had taken the cat inside during the night. Shalma picked the cat up and wrapped him in her favorite NASA t-shirt. I called him Odin, for the Nordic god who was once known for healing the sick. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed for the other side of town.
It soon became apparent that our tuk tuk driver was from somewhere out in the provinces and had no idea where he was going even though we had showed him on a map. He also spoke very little English, so as Shalma was trying to keep the cat in the bag I was leaned over and giving directions to a place I had never been before. Eventually, we wound up at the vet, and the tuk tuk driver let us out. We soon realized that the office was closed even thought their posted hours said they were open. I opened the security gate and called out for someone. A woman (who also didn’t speak English) came and told us as well as she could to come back later. I really need to learn Khmer; life would be a lot easier! Eventually the woman got the vet (who turned out to be her daughter) on the phone and she told us we could leave Odin for the time being. Shalma and I needed to decompress and decided to walk two hours to get home.
We felt pretty satisfied having hopefully saved Odin’s life. At that point we kind of imagined he would have a 30% chance to live if he was lucky. We sort of resigned ourselves to that. When we arrived home, we walked past little Scruffles. Shalma had awoken to her affection for baby cats and wanted to sit with him for a while.
As you can see in the picture above, Shalma is welling up with emotion. However, at this point we felt like we had done enough to save a single cat. Scruffles was still destined (in our minds) to remain an outdoor critter. All we could do is hope that he survived. From what we had seen of him he was a hardy beast that could handle the outdoors better than the competition. However, he was sweet and anxious for attention. He meowed repeatedly and ran toward us every time we saw him. Nonetheless I was anxious to go back upstairs, and Shalma told me she wanted to spend more time with Scruffles but that she would follow me up shortly.
The first thing Shalma told me when she got upstairs was that a woman shooed her off just as I left her with Scruffles. Shalma told me that the woman said, “Take him!” The local people living in modest apartments in the alley below us have suffered from stray cats. They are little more than a nuisance as they keep people awake all night with their incessant meowing through through their thin walls. The cats also create a competition for food. Few Khmer people will take in a cat like Scruffles when caring for the kitten may cost them nearly what they make in a month. The cats are little more than annoying objects and only useful as rat killers.
Shalma was disturbed well into the evening thinking about Scruffles. She told me that she wanted to go downstairs and check on him. I tried to convince her not to do so. I told her that she would annoy the local people by fawning over this animal. Sure, I felt the same way as she did; I was also concerned. That didn’t mean that I wanted to interrupt anyone’s lives. For poor people living in the tiny alleyway apartments, the alley itself acts as a playground, a place to do laundry, a place for business, and a community center. I felt we had no right to invade that as foreigners. In my mind, we should try to create the least amount of fuss possible. Eventually, Shalma went downstairs anyway.
I got a little worried after waiting for more than an hour for her to come back. I tried to call her on my phone, but she wasn’t taking my calls. Eventually she answered and told me that she was coming up shortly. When she did finally come up she brought a surprise with her: Scruffles!!!
To be honest, I wasn’t particularly happy to see that Shalma had brought wild street fauna into our home. My first response was to ask, “Don’t you think this is something we should have discussed?” That is when she told me that she went downstairs to find boys playing catch with the frightened kitten. Shalma had made them stop and took the kitten from them. That is when she met a Khmer woman in the alley who had actually rescued several cats herself and explained to Shalma how most people here don’t care about the cats and would never spend such a large portion of their income on them. The woman explained that her own mother could live off of less than two dollars a day, which is much less than it costs to take care of all the needs of a cat.
Anyway, Shalma gave Scruffles a bath so he was less of a wild animal. In the picture below you can see a Scruffles who (as it turns out) does not enjoy a nice relaxing evening in the bath. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be relaxed by it at all for some reason.
As you can see Shalma missed his nose, and little Scruffles was pretty annoyed by this bath because nobody told him what a bath is. Admittedly, baths tend not to be particularly warm here in Cambodia, especially for cats. I have yet to be in an apartment that has warm running water in the bathroom sink, and even the showers don’t quite cut it if you’re looking for anything truly hot and steamy. At any rate, Scruffles eventually dried and settled right into being a cute little cuddly thing. You can witness this in the pictures below.
It is difficult to explain why, but Shalma and I were emotionally exhausted at this point. There were a lot of tears over both cats. We didn’t want to take in these cats, and in fact had zero intention of doing so. When we first took in Odin we talked about getting him fixed up just enough to release him back into the wild. We were realizing that this wasn’t sufficient. Our hearts just wouldn’t let us do that. Making matters worse, there is really no place that can take cats at the moment. Resources are limited and it was peak cat season. Making matters worse, there was recently a massive evacuation of a famous local housing project called The White Building that is being razed. This exposed countless feral animals that have left the few shelters at capacity. You can read a little bit about this den of drugs, prostitution, and squalor in the hyperlink.
Taking the Scruff to the vet
It became clear that we had to look after these cats against our will until we could find them a forever home or figure out what the hell we were going to do with them. Shalma and I could not take Scruffles to the same vet that we took Odin to because it just happened to be closed, so we took him to a wonderful place called Animal Mama here in Phnom Penh. There we me the couple who run it, Yulia and Darren, two extremely lovely people who kind of got caught up the way we did, and ended up opening an animal clinic.
Inside their office Darren was telling us about the dogs wandering freely in the lobby. One was rescued from becoming soup, another was a beautiful Belgian Malinois that was once a de-mining dog, saving people’s lives only to eventually be abandoned. One dog really touched my heart; his name was Hercules. I was never sure what kind of dog Hercules was because he was tortured by sociopaths beyond recognition. He had his lips and nose cut off. They cut off his penis and many of his toes as well. The would-be coup de gras was when they threw him into boiling water, which has left him without skin on much of his body. And yet he persisted and survived to be the sweetest and most loving animal to us, humans, who do not deserve his love and affection. Dude, there are a lot of tears, man. This is actually hard to write about.
Getting the kittens back
We left Odin at his vet for six days and Scruffles stayed at Animal Mama for five. When we got them back they were both doing better but Odin was having a lot more trouble. They both have worms pretty badly, but Odin was far sicker and much more infected. We ended up taking Odin back to the vet for an additional three days before getting him back.
We picked Odin back up just a week ago. I started cooking fresh chicken from the market for them. I boil it, strip it off the bone, and then chop it up finely. The fresh chicken still gets them very excited, and they are both putting on weight, Odin a lot slower than Scruffles. Scruffles is really rounding out nicely. Here are a couple pictures taken of him last night:
He’s rounding out and looking like a cartoon cat. Unfortunately, Odin has a scorching case of ringworm and will be back at the vet for the next seven days. On the upside, Odin has been gaining weight too and has began to jump, meow, run, play, eat a bunch, and use the cat box.
Our next course of action
This has been a pretty emotional trail to wander down, and it has been a lot of work. We are still trying to maintain the health of the cats. At the time of this writing Odin is back at the vet. He had a considerable amount of ringworm, and will be treated around the clock for the next seven days. We will have both cats vaccinated and they will receive final doses of deworming medications. Hopefully they will be at the pinnacle of health within the next week or so.
Our next goal is to get the kittens adopted. This is a task far more easily said than done. The chances of adopting the cats out here in Phnom Penh are somewhere close to a million to one. Our hands are kind of tied to the point that we can either take them to the US or release them back into the wild. Our apartment is not equipped to keep them long term. We cannot even open our windows here in the tropics because nobody puts screens on windows in this country. We have already had Scruffles attempt suicide, but Shalma rescued him.
We have one friend in Oakland who would like to take in Odin, and we would like nothing more than to place him with her. As for Scruffles, I am sure that we could easily find him a home because he is so sweet, funny, and incredibly affectionate. Plus, most of the cats here have weirdly short tails (Khmer cats are kind of their own breed) and I am sure someone would enjoy taking in such a special looking cat who really had no other option.
We know there are a lot of animals to be rescued in the US, so I can understand why it seems odd that we would send more animals there. But these animals literally have no chance to have a long healthy life here. I honestly never wanted to do any of this stuff; I feel like it just happened to us, and I am not the type of person things just happen to. We have put a lot of time and money into the care of these cats because we really felt compelled beyond responsibility. Shalma is thinking of setting up a gofundme account to aid in transporting the kittens and assure their medical costs in the near future can be covered. I am really hopeful that we can get them both to the US. It would be kind of a miracle for them.
If anyone would like to take in Scruffles or help out with transportation or anything, please do not hesitate to contact me.