Matsu temple provides shelter for stray cats

Unlike most temples where it is unacceptable for animals to be wandering around, Yi Tien Temple (義天宮) provides a cozy refuge for cats. (CNA)

In Taiwan, temples and stray cats are a common sight, but one rarely sees both in the same place, except at Yi Tien Temple (義天宮) in New Taipei, where nine stray cats have made a home.

The temple, built in 1965 in honor of the sea goddess Matsu, has become known not just a place of worship for residents of Sanchong, but also a shelter for cats in the neighborhood.

Unlike most temples where it is unacceptable for animals to be wandering around, Yi Tien Temple provides a cozy refuge for cats.

“It’s not like we’re picking up cats around the clock, it’s just that it’s impossible to sit and watch them die,” Wang Hsiu-ying (王秀英), leader of the temple’s Buddhist chanting group, told CNA.

Wang, who has been serving as a volunteer at the temple since its opening, talks to the cats mostly in whispers.

“You are hungry, aren’t you,” she said, picking up a 10-day old kitten to give it a bottle feed.

Wang said she first started rescuing stray cats about 10 years ago when she found a female and five newborn kittens near the temple.

Over time, she learned how to take care of cats and began buying large quantities of food for them from her own pocket. After a while, other volunteers and staff at the temple joined the effort.

Now, there are usually eight or nine cats at the temple, lying on the altars, curled up inside the statues, or drinking water from the cups offered as tributes to the deities.

“Cats, like humans, are living beings,” Wang said. “The deities won’t be bothered by them.” The temple’s officer of general affairs, surnamed Tu (杜), said it is interesting to note that the number of cats at the temple always seems to remain roughly the same.

“As you can see, cats come and go, they die, and it’s like their lives are being extended this way,” said Tu, who has taken on the task of dealing with the litter boxes.

Whatever the reason for their constant numbers at the temple, the cats have become an attraction for visitors from home and abroad.

Inside the temple there are pictures of “Yuan Yuan” the tabby, “Bao Bao” the tuxedo, “Tai Tai” the gray cat, and many others, taken by visitors, the temple staff and volunteers.

Among them is the famous “New New,” a black and white cat that died around 2009 and was renamed “Holy Cat” on a section of the temple’s website that is dedicated to the cats.

No one at the temple can recall what exactly was so special about New New, except that she was clever and one of the older strays at the temple.

If worshippers did not put their dollar notes into the donation boxes properly, New New would push in the money with her paw, according to Chao Ching-fu (趙慶福), former chairman of the temple’s management committee.

On the temple’s website, there is also a story about how New New survived a serious car accident while she was wearing a Matsu amulet.

Whether or not most people believe the stories, there is no doubt that the temple is a safe refuge for cats, which in turn attract people.

“I came here because I saw the stories on TV,” said Amy Liu, who works in the area and was visiting the temple to see the cats for the first time. “Cats are lovely creatures. I definitely would come back again to see them.”

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter