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Feature Article

At Loggerheads:

Conservationists in Dispute

The Curious Rise of Taiwan's Cat Village

Taiwan is probably best known for its colossal national parks and native bird species; but deep in the heart of New Taipei lies a very special and locally famous little village.

The village of Houtong, which literally translates as "monkey cave", is steeped in a rich and slightly bizarre history. Legend has it that monkey's once lived in the surrounding caves prior to the construction of the railway and associated 1920's coal mining infrastructure. Today, however, the old mining facilities have been left in disrepair, and the village now prides itself on its love for stray cats.

In 2008, a local cat-lover began caring for Houtong's stray cat population - finding likeminded neighbours to help in her pursuit. The cat population soon began to grow, and thanks to the wonders of social media, the village is now locally famous for its overwhelming cat population. The local human residents are very proud of their collective achievements. A local cafe owner proudly claims that there are twice as many cats here as humans, and that she set up her cat-themed outlet ("Hide & Seek") in 2014 after she noticed more and more people visiting the village.

So - how does this relate to architecture and urban wildlife? Are these cats really wild; and is the local infrastructure really affecting their ability to thrive? The cats are formally stray but are communally cared for - and I would argue that the rise of this phenomenon is as natural as any other natural process one might find in the remote national parks that surround Houtong. The local human residents are equal actants in this ecological network - feeding and caring for the cats and developing their own unique culture and co-living habits. Social media, too, is a natural ecological force in this network. The villagers find economic incentives from this as they sell cat-themed trinkets and toys to cat-loving tourists - but their intrinsic motivation to care and cohabit is what sustains the relationship.

The modern urban landscape is often treated as a ring-fenced space, cleansed of nature, controlled, gardenised, and dominated by humans. Houtong has opened its doors (quite literally, the cafe owner paused mid-conversation to let in three local feline residents) to nature - or at least a selective staging of its processes. The dilapidated coal dressing plant now serves as a central sleeping station for the cats as they find pockets of shade in the ruins. They appear to prefer this informal settlement to the formal cat-houses that line the streets nearby, but I am assured that the houses are used occasionally when food is placed in them.

This unique collective of cat-lovers are paving a new path for cohabitation, but perhaps a more flexible and modular approach is required if the Houtong phenomenon is to be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. Here's to the feline metabolist movement!




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