Where have all the cats gone

India 19-03-11:

It was just a sensation at first, a feeling that something was missing, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on.

Within the cities and towns we visited in India, in an almost Disney-esque way, there was a world of animals, of all shapes and sizes, perhaps waiting to burst into song, perhaps just wanting to communicate or perhaps just striving to exist, but always almost magical. And yet something was not quite right, a question, a gap in this world hovered on the edges of your consciousness, trying to catch your attention, an itch waiting to be scratched. Something was missing from this almost magical world.

This feeling started when we first arrived in India, staggering around Leh, high on mild altitude sickness. There were dogs everywhere. At first you don’t notice it – after all stray dogs are a common sight in many cities of the world. But then you realize that these dogs are happy. Some are skinny, some are limping, some have matted hair, but all of them are relaxed. There is no tension, no wariness or aggression towards people. They lie there sunbathing and they wag their tales at you if they notice you – they are living in perfect harmony with people. There seems to be a mutual respect and fondness. They are not pets or loved or hugely cared for, but they are respected as living creatures and their place in the scheme of things seems to be accepted, not resented. And yes, mind starved of oxygen, I would not have been surprised to have heard one call me – “psst. Over here” – round the corner, into a dark bar to be confronted with poker playing hounds serenaded by Jessica Rabbit style singers.

And this made me happy. Suddenly I was walking around an already magical India with my head harboring its own little world of surreal talking dogs alongside the reality that all these animals were such a huge part of the hustle and bustle of this wonderful country.

There is no doubt that such a relaxed way of life for the dogs did not continue once we left the Himalayas. Normality resumed in Mathura. Children chased, adults occasionally kicked out and animals had that wary look in their eyes as you passed. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen much much worse in other countries. I guess as the quality of life for the humans decreases – there were no real slums in Leh – so it does for the animals, but despite this, fundamentally they are treated with respect and their quality of life is far higher than I would have expected.

It was fascinating to watch this eco system within the cities, a true variety of animals living and thriving amongst the concrete and traffic and filth. There were the cows, of course. Wandering aimlessly through the traffic, be it the dual carriageways or the back roads. Water buffalo lounged in the muddy ponds until they were herded through the busy streets at the end of the day. Peacocks strutted their stuff and chipmunks scurried around. Rats thrived and didn’t bother hiding. Monkeys – or rather macaques – hissed and growled, begging and stealing. Kites hovered above your head battling it out with the crows while goats and sheep graze on whatever greenery, thorny plants or rubbish they can find.

And yet…

And yet still there is that sense that something is missing.

Then it hit me. There were no cats. None. No strays, no pets, nothing. I looked, believe me. It was bothering me. Cats are the ultimate when it comes to surviving in these situations, they thrive in other countries and cities, so much so that places like Rome are actively trying to reduce their population. So where were they? Is it religious? Have they never existed in India? Have they dwindled? Been eaten? Anyone?

There I was, convinced I was on to something, on the verge of a huge discovery, something no one had ever noticed before. And then, on our penultimate night in Mathura, I was walking back through town around midnight, after a long day taking photos. In the distance I could hear a lone dog barking – an excited, playful yet unsure bark. The type of bark that can only mean one thing. As I walked the barking got closer, my heart was beating slightly faster, anticipating, curiosity pulling me onwards. The street was dark apart from one lamp post and, as if in a film, under the single cone of light was the dog. Tail wagging, its single barks were playful yet tinged with insecurity and doubt, some primal instinct telling it to chase, bark, play, kill, anything, something, just please, stop ignoring me…and there on top of the wall was a kitten, small and innocent. With just the right amount of disdain and superiority it looked up from the dog it was busy pretending to ignore, looked me in the eyes, blinked once, yawned, stretched and went back to sitting there, existing in a place where cats do not exist.

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