When Josette Vanneur walks into Wat Athvea pagoda, seven or eight cats and kittens immediately appear, trotting after her and mewing at her heels.
French expat Vanneur has been visiting the wat on the road to Tonlé Sap daily for two months now, bringing food and medicine to care for the feline contingent that is so close to her heart.
Cat-lover Vanneur used to live near Wat Athvea and had always been struck by the abundance of cats there.
“When you go to pagodas you can see dogs and cats, but they don’t live with the monks. They just roam around outside,” she says. “But at Wat Athvea they lived next to the monks inside, so they attended their blessings and ate the monks’ food. I found that so special and after I moved I was always thinking about the pagoda and wanted to do something there as a personal initiative.”
Eight weeks ago Vanneur returned to Wat Athvea and found there were still lots of kittens and cats living there, many of which were in quite a sorry state.
“They were skinny, they received no medical care at all so I decided to try to do something,” she says. “Just giving basic care such as cleaning their eyes, giving them medicine, cleaning their ears and feeding them. I gradually saw the change in them.” Vanneur says a highlight for her was when some volunteer vets from New York-based Infinite Hope animal rescue centre came to treat the cats.
“They didn’t have time to sterilise them – hopefully it will be done later – but at least they got vaccinated and had treatment against lice and fleas,” she says.
When Insider accompanies Vanneur on her morning visit, she spends half an hour feeding and watering the cats, paying special attention to the sick or scrawny ones. A couple of young monks take great interest in what she is doing and Vanneur encourages them to join in with the feline feeding.
“There are always children coming and going and I always try to involve them in what I’m doing,” she says. “I show them how I clean their ears. I even ask them to help me to hold the kitten and to watch what I’m doing.” One kitten has its face painted with what looked like nail varnish or acrylic paint. The culprit is later discovered to be a four-year-old boy. Vanneur carefully cut out as much of the painted fur as she could. She fussed over the thin creature, gently trying to coax it to eat but to no avail. More encouragingly Vanneur pointed out a tiny ginger ball of fluff – a four-week-old kitten that was growing healthier and had a good appetite. “You can tell this one is going to be alright”, she said happily.
Vanneur says that at the beginning there were many casualties among the pagoda’s cat population, recalling the time she arrived one morning to find a dead kitten lying unnoticed on a step. Lack of water is a problem, as well as viruses that can travel from one weak kitten to another.
“When I saw a dead kitten for the first time I was really shocked, but now with several casualties I have encountered along the way I cannot say that I’ve got used to it, but it’s something inevitable,” she says. “There are some kittens which
I begin to recognise will make it, and others who look weak and I can already anticipate that they will not survive. I have been influenced by the Buddhist philosophy which respects the natural order of things so they are born and then some survive, some don’t. I’m not crying anymore. It’s always very sad to me, but I begin to accept this.” There have been success stories too, such as the kitten that was adopted last week by an expat who contacted Vanneur looking for a ginger moggy for his daughter. Vanneur says that the chief monk was very surprised to see her at the pagoda when she first began, but was nonetheless extremely appreciative.
“He said it was the first time that a barang came to look after the cats there. After that he went away, came back and brought me a bag of food that he had received to thank me. And every time I go there he always says good luck and thank you.
“What I particularly like, coming here, is when I’m feeding and caring for the kittens while the monks are giving blessings,” she adds. “It’s a truly magical moment being with these lovely kittens and hearing the monks’ prayers. There is something a bit spiritual. That’s really the magic of the pagoda.”
Vanneur says that one day she would love to see others following her example.
“My dream is to see foreigners living and working in local areas to do the same in their local pagodas – going there regularly to feed the cats and provide basic treatment. It makes such a difference.”