On Being A Cat In Bali

May 4, 2013

One of Bali’s many cats, practically a walking skeleton, crosses the road slowly outside a restaurant. It doesn’t even try to dodge cars and bikes; it doesn’t even look for hazards; it is beyond caring.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, who target restaurants in the hope that patrons will throw them a morsel in response to their piteous meowing, this one ignores everything and everybody. It seems wholly focused on the process of walking without falling over, single-mindedly intent on its unknown destination.

Focus. Stay alive. Keep going.

Focus. Stay alive. Keep going.

Bones stretching its dull and matted fur, it plods slowly past the tables, paying no attention to the smells of food. It is almost beyond using its scavenging skills, beyond hunger, and nearly beyond life.

Does it have a human family? Someone to nurture it and look after it? Probably not. In Bali, there don’t seem to be many locals who feel more than a diffuse and distant empathy for cats. After all, it’s only recently that  the Balinese have discovered the companionship that dogs provide; cats don’t seem to have quite made the grade yet.

Perhaps that’s because dogs have owners, people on whom they can lavish affection and loyalty, and therefore get it in return. Cats, on the other hand, don’t acknowledge anyone as being their master. Instead of accepting a human leader, a cat sees a competitor. Cats don’t have owners; cats have staff, whose sole purpose seems to be to minister to their needs and to be ignored as soon as these needs are met. They pay a price for this independence.

Of course there will always be ‘dog people’ and ‘cat people’ as long as humans respond to animal personalities in different ways. I’m more of a dog person myself, but it makes me sad to see any animal alone, unloved and discarded as this cat appears to be, and I try to help it.

But it rejects my offer of food, acting as if it can’t see, or smell it. Maybe it can’t; maybe its whole being has shrunk to a tiny pinpoint, the purpose of which now is just to stay alive for another minute, another hour, another day.

Unbidden, the plight of Indonesia’s poor rises to the surface of my mind, but, like a true coward, I push it back down. Many, like this cat, are alone, malnourished, without hope, and without opportunity. But there are 100 million of them and I can do nothing; the problem is too vast. Instead, I focus on the cat, because there is only one, it’s right here and it provides me with an illusion that I can actually help it.

But of course, I can’t. It walks on as if I wasn’t there, any spark of hope it may have once had in those dead eyes beaten out of it by a thousand rejections, a thousand harsh words and a thousand disappointments.

Go in peace cat, and may the end be peaceful.


  1. I am a cat person, as you know, so thank you Vyt. I found this very moving. Bali’s cats do present a dilemma and as you say, more so than dogs because dogs actively look for a master. The cat, in contrast, requires a slave 🙂 (You wrote staff but I know what you meant…)

    Around our place, a couple of intergenerational cat families live wild. They don’t need feeding (plenty of rats and other prey in the neighbourhood) but somehow they seem to know they’re welcome to lodge under cover here if it’s raining, or if there are new kittens. One little mum with whom I’m just about on friendly gaze terms likes to use our back steps from time to time. The dawn sun is nicely warming there. She’s always welcome and I put off the morning patrol to the underground water tank (to see if PDAM has managed to trickle anything to us overnight) if she’s there, so I don’t scare her away.

    They patrol the garage area at night too. Welcome, I say.

  2. In truth, cats hold a higher position in Hindu Dharma Bali than dogs…just ask any Balinese.

    While driving their bikes or cars, if a Balinese hits and kills a cat, they will stop and make every effort to find out from which compound that cat belongs, while when the same thing happens with dogs, they’ll just move on. Moreover you’ll never find a Balinese hunting cats with their air rifles on Bali. And, while sate anjing can be found in many warungs of Bali (dog meat sate) one will never find sate kucing…cat meat. The best dog meat by the way, is said to come from black and white spotted dogs, but I cannot offer any personal opinion as to the truth of that opinion pervasive among the Balinese.

    All animals hold one or other position on the “scale” (for lack of a better word) of re-incarnation, and cats most assuredly hold a higher position than dogs.

    Asking several high priests and balians about this over the years the usual answer I’ve gotten for the reason for this higher status of cats is based on their perceived greater intelligence and their usual dismal of the needs of humans to maintain their welfare. There is no particular God to which they are associated, nor do they hold the high status of white cows or monkeys, but they are definitely held as higher than dogs.

    I guess the Balinese figured out a long time ago that there really is no such thing as a “domestic cat.” Cats don’t make for “loving” or devoted pets, and their independence is a trait consistent with all co called domesticated cats world wide.

    It’s interesting how insights into Bali Agama Hindu can often come from critters on four legs, rather than two.

  3. I think you will find that this cat is hardly starving, its a cross breed with the oriental/siamese breed which naturally look this way, and rarely get fat

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