This is the story of how a few dozen cats managed to save an entire community just by purring and looking pretty. Houtong was just another dilapidated mining town in the mountains of eastern New Taipei City, but everything changed when the felines came and livened up the place.
Houtong used to be one of Taiwan’s most important coal extraction sites, up until the 1970s. Then, oil and electricity took the place of coal, and the town suffered a steady decline. At one point it was reduced to a train stop along the Yilan line, one that most travelers ignored, and that forced many of its younger residents search for better opportunities elsewhere. The population of this defunct mining town dwindled from around six thousand inhabitants to a couple of hundred, who struggled to survive. But their fortunes changed in 2008, when a cat lover who goes by the name “Palin88” organized a series of cat photography events in the mountain town. He and his friends posted the photos online, and got an overwhelming response from fellow feline enthusiasts. As they shared the photos on forums and social media sites, Houtong welcomed more and more tourists eager to photograph the cats themselves, or simply watch them roaming through the town. Nowadays, Houtong is known as the Cat Village, or Taiwan’s Cat Mecca.
The hundreds of stray cats who call Houtong their home attract thousands of Taiwanese and international visitors every week, and the locals are cashing out on their popularity. Souvenir shops selling everything from cat-themed mobile dangles to cat-imprinted purses, and food-stalls offering cat-shaped snacks have proven very profitable since Houtong’s feline-induced rebirth. Acknowledging their pivotal role in the miraculous turnaround, villagers have grown very fond of the cats, and are doing everything they can to keep them safe and healthy. A team of volunteers provides free veterinary care and food, and the community has even set up comfortable cat houses for the furry stars to nap in. Building on the town’s reputation as a cat village, locals have placed a set of cat ears at one end of Houtong and a big tail at the other, and the old town bridge now features an elevated catwalk, allowing the cats to come down from the village to the train station and greet visitors as soon as they set foot off the train.
Unfortunately, there is also a bad side to Houtong’s growing fame as a cat paradise. According to Taiwanese media reports, a lot of pet owners looking to abandon their cats choose Houtong as the place to do it, assuming they will be taken care of by the locals. The cat population has been growing at an accelerated rate, and despite volunteer’s efforts to keep the cats vaccinated, there’s still a risk of new cats spreading infectious diseases. On top of that, the community is also struggling to keep up with the cost of daily food and veterinary supplies.
It’s fair to say that along with Japan’s Island of Cats, the Cat Museum of Kuching and Saint Nicholas of the Cats Monastery, the Houtong Cat Village is a must-visit destination for any self-respecting cat lover. It’s definitely on my list.
Photo: Carson Fu
via Amusing Planet