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Taiwan's cat village is a tourist draw and a local headache

The cats are fine. It's the people taking and dropping them off that are the problem

Cat cafes line an alley in Taiwan’s Houtong, which is now better known as “cat village.” (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

TAIPEI The town of Houtong in northern Taiwan is known as "cat village," where the cat population of 200 is roughly double that of the human population.

The former mining town attracts nearly a million visitors a year, including many from abroad, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan.

From Taipei, a series of local trains delivers visitors to Houtong station in about 40 minutes. Right outside the station are cats -- on and beneath benches, on the roads, and even in the branches of trees.

But often, there seem to be more tourists than cats, many taking photos with smartphones.

"There's nothing like this for cat lovers," said a college student from Japan's Saitama Prefecture, who was there on the final day of her three-day visit to Taiwan. "It's the best place I've been on this trip."

Since the 1920s, when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule, Houtong had been a thriving coal-mining town. But the population declined rapidly following the mine's closure in 1990. As the number of humans decreased, the population of stray cats grew, fed by the remaining residents.

Jian Peiling, who later become a cat photographer under the name of Mrs. Kitten, first visited the village around 2008. She was struck by the large cat population and started writing about it on her blog and in books. She organized volunteers to support the cats and to arrange for their vaccinations.

In January 2010, Houtong received only about 500 visitors, but word of the village spread through Facebook. TV programs featured the village too. In 2013, the U.S. cable news broadcaster CNN cited Houtong as one of six places where "cats outshine tourist attractions."

In 2016, the annual visitor count rose to about 870,000. In the first nine months of the following year, it rose 12% from a year earlier, indicating that the full-year figure may have reached 1 million. Souvenir shops and restaurants have sprung up near Houtong station.

POPULARITY PROBLEMS One downside for the village, however, is the sharp increase in outsiders coming to discard cats they no longer want.

Zhan Biyun, a 65-year-old villager who has cared for many cats over the years, recounted how the animals are both stolen and discarded on a whim by some visitors.

Zhan adopted two of her cats -- Diandian and Banban -- four years ago after finding the apparent female siblings, each about a month old, abandoned at the foot of a cliff near her home.

Banban in particular had beautiful fur, and a month later somebody took her.

The cat soon appeared on a website looking for new owners, and Zhan immediately took her back. Later, Banban was stolen again, and has never returned.

"There are people who adopt cats without thinking seriously about it, and abandon them as soon as they don't want them anymore," Zhan said.

The local government and volunteers have been running a sterilization program, to the point where they believe the established population is not reproducing. That means kittens are the result of new animals, such that the current population is basically all immigrants or their offspring, according to an official with the New Taipei city government.

Another problem is that many of the abandoned cats are ill. In 2014, much of the cat population died of an infectious disease apparently introduced by a newcomer.

A cat information center in the village warns that anyone discarding their pets is subject to a fine of 150,000 New Taiwan dollars ($5,119). But that has not solved all problems.

Houtong can be a place where visitors can learn to value animals, said a tourism official with the New Taipei city government. But there may be work to do to achieve that, the official added.

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