I used to think that my ideal job (after owning that little dive shop on the beach in Sipidan) would be to work in an animal sanctuary. Maybe orang-utans, or baby tigers or something cute and endangered and essentially a job where I’d be “doing good”. Now I’m not so sure I could hack it. Case in point: Donut the Kitten.
I arrived at Lumba Lumba dive centre, on Monday, fresh from the Banda Aceh ferry, and ready to dive. The centre is perched on a beach on the most northern tip of Indonesia, on a tiny island called Pulau Weh. The beach is also home to a handful of families, each with their own “cafe” serving what tourists and backpackers there are with home-made curries and Nasi Goreng. And with small settlements like this come semi-stray dogs and cats. If you don’t feed them, we’re told, they’ll not pester you. Some are skinny, some look like they get the pickings of the rubbish each evening. I managed to resist the urge to fatten up the dogs. mainly because the food was so bloody good I didn’t want to share any.
On Tuesday afternoon, after returning from a dive we were sitting at the front of the dive centre, drying off in the sun, munching on donuts from the local supplier (Mama Donut is a local entrepreneur who bakes the most amazing donuts, fritters, steamed cakes and fried tempe, and sells them to hungry divers on the beach, all of the princely sum of about 20p each; they’re worth 10 times more, believe me).
While we were blissing out in the sugarfest, a tiny little black bundle crawls up to our feet and makes a strange noise. It’s a kitten. A very scrawny, scruffy, feral kitten. She’s a bag of bones, and looks like she needs to grow into her ears. And put on about five times her own body weight. She has a tiny squeal like a cheetah cub calling it’s mother, but about as loud as a mosquito. She must be less than three months old, and she’s done amazingly well to get to that age. She’s the size of my flip flop, and she’s at my feet shouting at me, or at least trying to. She’s tiny, feisty and the cutest, skinniest, most vulnerable thing I’ve seen. I give her a stroke behind the ears, and she closes her eyes. I’m smitten.
Now, she looks far too young to be without a mother, and probably should still be suckling. Worryingly, she doesn’t seem to have been taught how to hunt either; she doesn’t pounce on flies like other beach cats we’ve seen. Her strategy seems to be: hang around these tourists and they’ll feed me.
That strategy seems to work, at least partly when we move from our seats, and she follows us, hanging around my feet, crying that miniscule and irresistible mew. She even rubs her head against our ankles, like my own cats at home when I come in from work, and they tell me they’re pleased to see me (but please will you feed us now?).
She must have hung around the dive centre that night, as the following morning at breakfast, she decided to show up and mew at everyone’s feet. Amazed she survived the night, we sneakily poured some Carnation milk into an upturned shell, and she lapped it up eagerly. Once that was gone, and she’d licked the shell dry, she then got out her tiny needle claws, and proceeded to climb up a human leg, and curl up on a nice warm lap, as if she’d been invited. Two minutes later she was zoned-out, on an evaporated milk-high, and happily fell asleep.
That afternoon she was back again after a dive, hanging around us as we purchased Mama Donut’s latest batch. With that little ultra-persuasive cry, and her sheer cuteness and skinny vulnerability, she had me. I fed her a donut; she almost took my finger off. She scoffed a five massive kitten-mouthfuls, then happily crawled into my lap, and zoned out again on the sugar.
We named her Donut.
She followed us everywhere around the dive centre, although mainly, I admit, for the chance of food. She almost broke my heart when I went back to my bungalow, and she followed me, around the back of the centre, across the bridge, and when I walked up the steep path, she stood at the bottom, unable to follow, and shouted after me. I would have picked her up and taken her with me if I could.
Donut likes a warm lap; not too fussy whose. She likes being stroked on the top of her head, and behind her ears. You can feel her skull through her fur. She fits in the palm of my hand – but you can feel her ribcage when she’s there.
She was back Thursday morning, and got some more Carnation out of an upturned sea shell, before settling on a lap again, quite happily, as if she’d been there all along. She came back again in the afternoon after our dive, shouting as usual, and rubbing against ankles, but we didn’t have anything to feed her. I told her when Mama Donut came, I’d get her a special one.
In the afternoon, the guys from the dive centre were trying to scuttle an old fishing boat out in the bay, which involved a lot of physical effort, some logs, and acquired help from locals. Donut came to watch. She was getting around people’s feet, so I picked her up, and we sat down on a bench facing the sea. She curled up on my lap and fell asleep, with help from some behind-the-ear strokes. I was very content. I think she was too.
After a while, just as the boat was about to slide in to the water, Donut and I got up and wandered over to see the fruit of the labour. The local men who’d come to help started to move away, and probably thinking they would give her food, Donut bounded after them, in that enthusiastic kitten way, up the road in between their feet, looking up at them innocently, expectantly, waiting for something.
She disappeared around the corner and I didn’t see her again.
After dinner I came back with some noodles for her in a napkin, but she wasn’t around. She’d left the dive centre, and our accommodating laps, for the promise of food with some other people. And I tried to resist the urge to look for her whenever I was down at the dive centre, looked around under the benches where she would hide, but she’d vanished.
So why am I a big softie?
Now, my two cats at home are house cats. I’m very attached to them. They’ve travelled the Atlantic with me and I’m very protective of them. They’re house cats because I got them when I lived on the 27th floor in Manhattan, but if I’m honest, if they were allowed out, I’d be a nervous wreck (there are arguments both for and against house cats).
I used to cry at the end of each episode of the Littlest Hobo, so I’m not really any good with keeping my emotions in check when it comes to animals. It goes back to my childhood when my Gran had to put down her dog, though to having my own Spaniel put to sleep when I was eighteen. I was more traumatised by that than I was when my old aunt died a week later. I sobbed when Two Socks got shot in Dances with Wolves. I cried when my favourite fish died (I was 24).
I have an attachment disorder, quite obviously. I’d love to work in that animal sanctuary, but I know I just wouldn’t be able to release them into the wild afterwards – I get far too attached. It helps if they’re cute, innocent and vulnerable, and show affection towards me. Even if it is just for food. I can’t switch from “this is emotionally beneficial to me right now” to “this is in their best interests in the long run”. I need to work on that.
So, when Donut didn’t turn up for breakfast on Friday morning I tried to put her put of my mind. Despite having no mother, being a bag of bones, and having no cat skills at all, she’ll be fine, I told myself. She’s only been gone overnight, for god’s sake. And anyway, how many millions of cats are in the same situation? Survival of the fittest, I told myself. It’s Nature’s way.
Due to local law, we didn’t dive Friday morning, so the group decided to walk to the nearest village – Iboih – for some cultural experience and coffee. We walked the 1km, fairly busy road, in hot mid-morning sun (it’s true what they say about mad dogs, then), past the hospital, police station, and what we presumed was the post office, passing homes in various states of disrepair and grandeur. We stopped for photos, and enjoyed the walk – jalang jalang as it’s expressed in Bahasa.
As we entered the village of about 10 huts, each serving various types of refreshment, petrol, or groceries, a small black bundle crossed the road ahead of us.
It was Donut.
She came over to us and mewed at our feet in that familiar way, and all of us were amazed to see her, still skinny, still feisty, and a kilometre away from the dive centre, along a main road, in 37 degrees of sun. How she’d managed to get here we still don’t know, but it was her alright. She rubbed up against ankles and she got lots of strokes from us, and as we walked on she followed us for a while, shouting as usual, but then latched on to a nearby group of people instead, looking for scraps, seeing what she can scavenge. We went for a coffee and she disappeared.
So I might not be one who can bear the thought of my own two cats going out into the deepest city and fending off foxes, or finding their way home, but I’m pretty sure that Donut’s going to be fine. She’s got some fight for a wee thing.