Walk by a Phnom Penh wat — translated here as “pagoda” or “temple” — and you are likely to encounter what I think of as a special breed of cat: the pagoda cat.
As dusk approaches, you also may encounter a special breed of human: the cat feeder.
Such a human is David Gorman (above), a Montreal native of 48 years old who had visited Cambodia several times and moved here nine months before I happened upon him a few weeks ago.
At a cost of perhaps $1 a day, mostly for dry food, he visits Wat Langka in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 neighborhood religiously. There, he puts out paper dishes of dry food and about a teaspoon each of wet food, expensive here, for as many as 40 felines.
“It’s my analogy to sitting on a park bench and feeding the pigeons,” he allowed when I slipped into one of the wat’s side entrances again to ask Gorman what was up with him. I also wanted to enjoy getting somewhat closer to the cats then leisurely dining there.
“It gives me,” he continued, “a little bit of structure in the afternoons.”
Noting that the cat population seems to change there in three-month cycles, from zero to that extraordinary maximum of 40, Gorman suggested one possible explanation for the range is the common affliction of death from untreated distemper.
He went on feeding the cats and stroking the one on his lap when I talked to him. Gorman has given them names such Karen, Holstein (which is, wouldn’t you know it, black with white patches), Rick James and Pepperoni. I didn’t need to ask how he came up with Holstein’s moniker. He couldn’t explain how he comes with the names, though Gorman confessed that the creatures probably don’t recognize their own.
Of the eight cats that early evening, three had clipped ears, a sign that they had been neutered.
Stray cats and dogs are hard to miss around Phnom Penh. The cats tend to be extremely skittish, unlike the pagoda cats, which clearly know which side of the paper plates have been kibbled.
Although I generally try to skirt Cambodia’s dogs in spite of my rabies inoculation, I also attempt to approach cats in the hope of petting them; rarely do they let me. Thus my wandering into the pagoda.
I have missed having a cat on my lap and in the crook of my arm when sleeping since Sophie and Tucker departed the world months before I left New York City.
For his part, Gorman says he had four cats before he retired early as a tenured professor of economic development at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla. He was able to find a new home for each of them before moving here. Like me, he now homes none.
As for his occasional travels away from Phnom Penh, Gorman assumes the cats will fend for themselves and arranges for no one to replace him.
Cambodians generally do not lavish healthy food or attention on their domestic animals, leaving them to wander at will and to nourish themselves with street trash or family table scraps, too often little more than rice. Perhaps that is why the monks at Wat Langka give Gorman, in his telling, funny looks.
Some individuals may go to the trouble of dropping off unwanted pets at a temple on the assumption that monks will take pity on and feed the animals; some of the monks, in fact, do. It also may be that a few strays as well find their way to the pagodas, where the benefactor is more likely to be an expat than a monk. (Indeed, before encountering Gorman, I noticed an expat woman attending to the cats there a while back.)
When I visited Gorman, a kitten made a beeline toward me without hesitation. Yes, as animals do with folks seeking to adopt, that adorable bundle of black fur picked me.
I wish I could end this post on a positive note by saying I adopted him — Vincent was the name Gorman gave him — but I travel frequently, sometimes for as long as month. Pragmatic concerns about my absences prevailed.
Still, I think of him all the time and look forward to passing by the pagoda periodically at feeding time to say hello. . . to David Gorman and the little one.