Inside Job: catman

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: abandoned cat welfare ranger

A security guard opens a side gate, letting us into the park beyond the Fifth Ring Road, just before dusk. ‘The cats don’t come out if there are people around,’ says Li Qingyan, laden with bags of food and a tanker of water, 'It’s better to wait till after dark.'

Right on cue, Mr Li’s first clients appear from within the artificial miniature mountains inside the entrance. They look like huge tigers against the skewed scale. 'Hello Pudding!' calls Mr Li.

cat 2

Pudding (Buding) and Qiuqiu are our first customers and we start preparing their dinner. 'The cats are territorial, so we’ll be feeding them in their own territories through the park,' explains M r Li. Pudding and Qiuqiu are pretty unfazed by me and also by Baixiong (White Bear), the stocky white dog Mr Li and his wife bring to the park each day. 'We rescued Baixiong from the park so he wouldn’t get eaten… There aren’t many dogs here now in spring because people come to the park in winter to catch them for food. And the tamer the… more unfortunate.'

Mr Li has been coming here every day for nearly 11 years now. As we get the food out I ask whether he’s been given a nickname. 'Well, they call me the Cat King because I’ve also got 30 disabled cats at home from the park.' So I’m among cat royalty. The cats have been 'thrown away' here over the years. He fed one little cat called Erbao for seven years before he stopped showing up last year.

The Cat King mixes biscuits with a bit of tinned meat in a plastic tub, then hammers the metal spoon through the food to create a biscuity clatter, which reaches the ears of other cats, who come padding over. We spoon the mix into separate piles for them and I notice these patches of ground are stained; the cats eat at the same spots every night.

We move on to the next feeding point in the trees. Cat King calls out the names of the cats who manage this part of the park. Magpies arrive, ready for the leftovers, then cats appear from behind trees and over a wall.

cat 5

Why are the tips of their ears neatly snipped off? 'Male left, female right,' the Cat King points out. They have a gender-specific ear snip when they get their gender specific other snip. An organisation called Lucky Cats (Xingyun Tu Mao, 幸运土猫) comes to the park, rounds up un-neutered cats and takes them for their operations. They also sort the tamer ones to see if they can re-home them; the wilder ones are returned to the park.

The Cat King has names for each of the roughly 70 cats he feeds. He’s concerned that there is no sign of Little Yellow, and keeps calling throughout the park.

Night falls as we head up a hill to where Ropeway and pals hang out. The Cat King dispenses a good few kilos of food per day. He’s not worked out how much he’s spent, but as we walk we go through the costs, and even though he now buys the food wholesale, he’s getting through at least 50RMB a day on the park cats and 70RMB on his in-house rescue centre. 'That’s not big money. When they’re ill, that’s as expensive as you can’t even imagine.'

As well as cleaning up the leftovers and dishing out the new food, I change the water in the bowls hidden under tables, between the legs of stone lions and behind trees.

Further up the mountain, finding our way with torchlight, we reach the foot of the pagoda that supposedly houses one of Buddha’s teeth. Monks in the temple are ringing their bell and chanting as the Cat King and I ring the dinner bell spoon. A flock of felines emerge from the darkness for their own daily ritual.

cat 6

'There should be another four cats here,’ the Cat King ponders. ‘Usually around a quarter don’t show up on any given day.'

His wife swipes through photos of the disabled cats at home, including 17-year-old Saddam, who has a lustrous black moustache. 'It’s so much effort that we now only have two meals a day, what with the cats everywhere. And we have to cook those outside,' says the Cat King. 'These cats are like an addiction.'

After half-a-dozen feeding stops the Cat King drops us off at a path that will take us back to the entrance. He heads back into the pitch black forest towards the remaining feeding places, calling as he goes. A pointed-ear head pops up in his torchlight.

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