An entertaining story about rescuing and adopting stray cats in Vietnam

During an 18-month stay in Viet Nam, my girlfriend and I become sidetracked by an orphaned kitten suffering from a broken leg and living by a bridge where dog-and-cat-thieves roam. After rescuing the kitten and arranging for it to be sheltered, however, we grow increasingly attached to it and take it into our home, only for its real battle for survival to begin. But this isn’t the only cat in need of our help.

Stray Cat City came about during that odd time between finishing one novel and starting another, in a time when I wasn’t writing anything else. I’d long thought that a book about the stray cats we encountered in Vietnam, including the two we ended up adopting, would make a good story. There was plenty of conflict and drama involved, an interesting setting, likable characters (feline and humans both), one or two interesting coincidences, and a happy ending. I also thought the book might be instructive to potential adopters of stray dogs and cats in Vietnam, and I wanted to do something that might bring more positive attention and funding to Animal Rescue and Care (ARC), which does such important but largely unheralded work in Vietnam. It doesn’t take much to provide a better future for unprotected animals, and the resources to do this effectively are beginning to appear more frequently in Vietnam.

The following is an edited excerpt from Stray Cat City:

In January 2014, after returning from Christmas in California and the Oshogatsu (New Year’s) holiday in Japan, Haru and I signed a one-year lease at a riverside apartment complex in District 2’s Thao Dien neighborhood.

The complex, aptly called Riverside, was one of those rare finds in an urban sprawl: lots of open, soft grass; beautifully maintained trees and flowers; a long stretch of the Saigon River always dotted with water hyacinth and birds of every description; and fish so big that a 200-kg carp was caught not far upstream while we lived there.

We moved into the only apartment there that we could afford: a first-floor, one-bedroom unit with a full kitchen, combined dining and living room, and a back porch hemmed in by flowers, knee-high ferns, and shady coconut palms.

Almost immediately we discovered that Riverside also had stray cats. It wasn’t clear where they all came from or where they disappeared to, but they left no doubt in anyone’s mind that Riverside was their nighttime base. The other residents never complained about them, for they mostly stayed hidden and rarely risked human encounters.

Saigon is a difficult place to walk because traffic there is treacherous, and the condition of streets and sidewalks is often appalling, not to mention the fact that most of the latter are blocked by parked motorbikes and people selling things, drinking coffee, or just watching the world go by. Oftentimes the sidewalks become an extension of the road and fill with motorbikes detouring around jammed traffic in the street. Where we lived, traffic outside wasn’t terrible except when the international school next door started and ended and the small road became choked with automobiles, but even during calmer hours it was still too dangerous for our tastes, or just too hot, for walking.

So-chan recovering after being treated with an IV for dehydration yet again

So-chan recovering after being treated with an IV for dehydration yet again

We came up with a walking course within the large confines of our apartment complex, and late every afternoon, as the sun descended and the temperatures finally dipped, we spent an hour or longer getting a bit of exercise. That time of day, too, was when the strays showed up. They had their hiding spots and their hunting spots, and were occasionally bold enough to steal leftover food from atop tables at Blu, Riverside’s restaurant. No one ever fed them—they never came close enough anyway—but not even Blu’s staff seemed to mind when they climbed onto the tables to scavenge. When it happened, we usually saw only one or two culprits.

It took us a month or two to learn to distinguish between the different strays, of which there were perhaps ten we regularly saw, and Haru eventually gave them all names. But because several looked much like the strays we’d seen in Mui Ne, they ended up with the same name—Kaito—followed by different letters: Kaito A, Kaito B, all the way to Kaito F. There was also a scrawny orange female tabby that we named Marmalade. Marmalade and one of the Kaito males, who often lay beside each other atop the long wall between the complex and filthy stream, or hunted fish together on the riverside when the tides brought the river level safely down, ended up profoundly impacting our lives.

Over time, several of the strays disappeared. We would cross the small bridge behind our apartment, which led over the stream to a parking lot that looked half-bombed, and search for some of the cats we no longer saw, but there was never any sign of them there—only the parking lot’s two guards and the domed wire cages where they kept two roosters. It was now the former dwelling place of those strays.

And somehow, when one or two strays disappeared, a week or two later another one or two would take their place. Several times we saw kittens following their mother like ducklings, and other times we saw kittens hiding together among the clustered brush and ferns or under the bridge that crossed the stream. Sometimes they could be found in the hollows of long, reinforced concrete pipes that lay along the stream banks—which were there both before we moved to Riverside and 14 months later, after we moved out.

In late April, Marmalade and three of her skinny, orange-and-white kittens, which couldn’t have been more than six weeks old, started hanging out on our back porch. Why they chose us when there were 38 other such porches to choose from I couldn’t explain.

Marmalade was visibly underweight, so we took to giving her a bit of food each day, usually a saucer of milk or extra meat we saved for her from our meals. Once we realized that giving her food was a habit we didn’t particularly want to stop, however, we started buying packs of Whiskas. Soon one small serving of wet cat food was enlarged with a handful of dry cat food. It wasn’t long before we were feeding her small plates of wet food twice a day with a midday snack of kibbles. We knew we were encouraging her and her kittens in ways we shouldn’t, for we couldn’t take any of them in—after all, we were planning to move back to Japan in less than nine months. But we couldn’t help ourselves; we felt sorry for them. We thought that if we fed them well they’d grow strong enough to survive in a place where stray cats rarely survived for more than a few years, at the very most.

A month later, in late May, we were saddened to discover that Marmalade had disappeared. We looked all over for her and asked some of the Riverside staff if they’d seen her, but no one had. Probably half of the people we asked surmised that she’d been caught and eaten. However, the three kittens we always saw with her continued to appear on our back porch. Following their mother’s disappearance we worried about them more every day.

These kittens, all males, which Haru named Su, Se, and Shi—a cute succession of syllables in Japanese, she explained—kept coming around, so we continued feeding them, wondering what to do. Eventually only one kitten, Su, made our back porch part of his regular routine (i.e., he adopted us), and occasionally the other two would appear there, too, but mostly they just hung out by the bridge behind Riverside.

Su standing on our back porch where he waited out a hard rain

Su standing on our back porch where he waited out a hard rain

Su was the biggest of the three kittens. Braver than the other two, in the beginning he consented to let us pet him, which always left our hands black with grime he carried in his fur. Sometimes we opened our porch door and let him wander around inside, but our apartment seemed to unnerve him and he rarely ventured far. He was playful, but mostly just hungry all the time, and took to sleeping wherever the sun blanketed our back porch and exterior windowsills. When kids at Riverside spotted him and rushed to pet and pick him up (they never succeeded, luckily), he disappeared in a flash, bolting into the surrounding vegetation.

At one point we gifted him a box we’d received in the mail from Japan. This allowed him to hide from his would-be terrorizers, not to mention from the gardeners who seemed to find the strays a nuisance and sometimes yelled at them, aimed their water hoses at them, and stamped at them to scram.

Again, Se and Shi sometimes accompanied Su to our back porch, eating what we gave them but not staying the way that Su would. By this time Su was spending half the morning and afternoon, when Riverside emptied of its many school age children, on our back porch.

Haru warned me about the direction things were heading, explaining that we couldn’t feed Su indefinitely. We would move back to Japan, or simply go away on a trip somewhere, and he’d be left without the food he now expected from us every day. He needed to learn to fend for himself.

It was then that I began thinking we might adopt him. But Haru wasn’t particularly keen on the idea, and who could blame her? I dropped the fantasy, and though we started to give Su less food every day, we didn’t stop feeding him completely.

One day something made me go outside—a vague, gut feeling, really—and search for the kittens by the bridge. I’d started to do this more often in the hope of finding Marmalade, though she’d been gone for two weeks already. I normally went in the mornings or evenings when it was slightly cooler outside and the strays were most active. That day, for some reason, I went there at around noon.

When I arrived at the bridge, which was sweltering in nearly 100-degree heat, I was shocked to find a fourth kitten, orange and white just like Su, Se, and Shi. It was smaller and skinnier than them, however, and I saw immediately that it could barely walk. It had a broken foreleg that, when it tried to come toward me, forced it to place much of its weight on the stump where its paw bent sharply, unnaturally beneath its leg. I knelt down as it approached me, limping badly and mewing, and I wondered if this was not a fourth kitten but rather one of the three I’d often seen. Perhaps one of them had recently been injured…

Get the full copy of Stray Cat City (Kindle or paperback editions available) to find out what happens next.

A minimum of 20 percent of the book’s royalties will be donated to Animal Rescue and Care (www.arcpets.com).

TEXT AND IMAGES BY DAVID JOINER