Cats don't have a good rep in Korea. Most folks think of them as vermin - oversized garbage-eaters. And the little beasties don't do much to fight that image, either. They stalk the nighttime streets with filthy coats and violence-notched ears, howling at the moon, at passing cars, at other cats. Koreans say they're bad luck, dangerous disease factories. Stay away. And whatever you do, don't feed the blighters. With this kind of attitude, it's pretty rare to encounter a domesticated cat in Korea. They're almost unheard of as house pets. It's normal to hear stories of people abusing them too, throwing stones, running them down with cars, or otherwise treating them like a nuisance to be exterminated.
Because cats have such low status in Korean society, there are few programs dedicated to their welfare. Most Korean cities are overrun with them simply because no one cares enough to enforce population controls. Most Koreans simply avoid the animals. At worst, they actively harm them. So cats are often found skulking around food waste bins, searching for a meal while staying out of sight.
I was raised with cats, learned to love them at a young age, so I have a little more sympathy for them than the average Korean. But I have to remember to see things from a different cultural perspective. Cats to Korea are like raccoons to America. You chase them out of your garbage before they rip everything apart and leave rotting leftovers scattered across the back alley. You avoid them when you see them, because they have a reputation for viciousness. And you definitely don't want to get bitten by them. Who knows where those nasty little teeth have been?
But there is a small and growing movement to treat cats differently. A dedicated core wants to change the way Koreans perceive cats by exposing them to properly domesticated felines and letting them fall in love with the cute and furry.
One of Erin's friends is a dedicated cat convert. The other night, she drove us to a cat sanctuary and rescue out near Chungju Dam, a little place called "The Spring is a Cat." The name comes from a Korean poem:
On a cat’s fur soft as pollen,The mild Spring’s fragrance lingers.
In a cat’s eyes round as golden bells,The mad Spring’s flame glows.
On a cat’s gently closed lips,The soft Spring’s drowsiness lies.
On a cat’s sharp whiskers,The green Spring’s life dances.
— Jang-hi Lee (1902-28), translated from the Korean by Chang-soo Koh
And as with all things trendy in Korea these days, "The Spring is a Cat" was also a coffee shop.
It was spacious, clean, and modern, but not exactly the kind of business one pictures when one thinks of cat rescue. But out on the back patio, they had a massive enclosure full of fuzzy felines.
There were old cats, young cats, ex-street cats. Visitors to the coffee shop were encouraged to come out and socialize. There were even toys dangling from the walls of the cage so people could play. And these cats had a pretty sweet deal, too: a covered stairwell leading to their own private enclosure, nightly showings of movies on the big screen just next door to their cage, and lots of people ooh-ing and aah-ing.
We spent a few minutes staring at the fuzzmonsters before retiring to the coffee shop. The movie screen showed music videos from the latest American artists. The cats contemplated Lady Gaga as we settled in to our drinks.
Erin's friend talked a bit about the plight of cats in Korea. Apparently older people used to eat them as a folk remedy for arthritis, accepting a little bad luck in exchange for supple joints. And that's as close as Korean culture ever got to enjoying cats. But nowadays, people are slowly warming to the creatures.
I drank my tea and watched a young couple walk over to the enclosure. They knelt beside the cage, and a small calico shamelessly preened for them, dancing back and forth, tail flirting. The couple smiled, reached through to brush his fur. I could hear the purring from our table. They asked the owner about adoption before returning to their table to think it over.
Cats don't have a good rep in Korea. But with time and a little patience, all things can change.
PS. The Spring is a Cat (the cafe, not the poem) is located up near Chungju Dam. Here's their business page on Naver, in case you want to visit them yourself. It's got the phone number, a map, and some bus routes. If you're in the area, I heartily recommend it.