The Champion of Cats at Wat Ni Rot


Deep within Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, lies Wat Ni Rot, a pagoda that is home to Chen Kea, a nun and animal lover. Along with her two ginger tabbies, Kohum (Rat) and Sor (White), Chen gives care to a dwindling population of cats inside the pagoda.

With regard to domestic animals, one might consider a decreasing population a good thing. It usually means spay/neuter efforts are succeeding, people are stepping up to help the animals around them, and public awareness is increasing. Unfortunately for Wat Ni Rot none of these reasons ring true.

In fact, they should really be having an increase in population because spay/neuter efforts at the pagoda are in their infancy, and with Chen providing care, they should be thriving. Why then are the animals disappearing? The answer is simple: meat. The dog meat trade, and more precisely, the cat meat trade is very alive within the city of Phnom Penh.

In her one-room wooden home, no bigger than a garden shed, Chen keeps few possessions. A small bed in the corner, a few dishes on a table, and a strung up line holds a limited wardrobe. For the last six years she has done her part to feed, medicate, and care for the animals out of her little home. Children bring kittens to her doorstep because they know she’ll care for them.

Sharing the Little that She has

Unfortunately, her resources are extremely limited. She only has a little rice and meat to feed the cats. Any medication they might need has to be donated because she can’t afford it. Animal Rescue Cambodia happily assists Chen when she is in need, but even ARC can only work within their thin resources.

Working around these obstacles, Chen does what she can with what she has. But, about three years ago something highly consequential started happening. People started entering the pagoda to steal the cats for their meat. Chen knew what was happening and how unlikely it was to stop. Now, in addition to being the foster mother to these cats, she has to be their champion.

Protecting Cats with Love

“As long as I’m here I’ll do my best to protect the cats,” she said with a weary smile. Unfortunately though, with such limited space, she can take only Kohum and Sor inside at night leaving the others vulnerable.

In addition to the thieves stealing the animals, she must combat attitudes at the pagoda. Some residents appreciate the cats and the care she gives, but many question her motives. They don’t mind seeing the animals removed from the pagoda regardless of the fate they meet. And while it’s known the animals are being taken from the pagoda for their meat, members of the public still drop them off there.

It’s mostly teenage boys coming at twilight to collect the cats. They come in pretending to “visit” the pagoda and easily scoop up the adults by hand. They will leave the kittens until they are large enough to fetch a good price. It has become an easy source of income for the boys. Even as the cats’ numbers continue to diminish, they still keep coming back for more.

Chen has asked for help from the other residents of the pagoda, but no one is willing to step up. Even those who enjoy the cats are sedimentary about the task. Perhaps they feel it’s too great a challenge, or perhaps they don’t actually care. The answer is unknown. So alone, Chen does what she can for the cats at Wat Ni Rot.

I want people to care. When they come to take the animals, I wish someone could help stop them.

-Chen Kea