The Zanzibari Cat

September 24, 2012

One of many cats roaming the Zanzibari streets of Stone Town; felines were originally brought to the island on ships to help control rats. 

Stone Town, Zanzibar

There are many wondrous and curious sights in Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. There's the huge Portuguese fort built in 1560 by a sultan; there are the caves at the northern tip of the island, where slaves once waited to be loaded onto ships. There are also the fragrant spice tours and the labyrinthine cobblestoned roads of the capital Stone Town. And, as those who have heard my interview on the award-winning MonsterTalk podcast know, there's also a skeptic-raping bat-demon-djinn named popobawa allegedly stalking the island. Most tourists see the big sights but fail to notice what's underfoot: cats. The island's towns are populated with cats descended from those kept on cargo ships to control rats. While a few are pets, most are feral, and spend their days scavenging scraps from garbage piles.

One hot day in Stone Town a few companions and I wandered from our hotel in search of a light lunch. As we crossed the street, I noticed a gray cat sleeping on a white stone ledge nearby. I reached out to pet it.

"I wouldn't touch that cat," a friend of mine warned. "Probably got fleas, lice, and who knows what else." I pulled my hand back instinctively, despite the fact that I'd petted scruffy strays on my travels in countless cities on four continents. Unless they are foaming at the mouth or have oozing sores, I'll usually give passing cats a friendly stroke or two.

One cat, in San Jose, Costa Rica, I think it was, was especially appreciative. I got the impression he was more often kicked aside than gently touched, and after about a minute of scratching him behind the ears I noticed how grimy my fingers were. I realized with some pity that the cat's natural color was probably closer to white than charcoal gray; the street soot and traffic exhaust tarnished what was once a beautiful coat.

I regarded the Zanzibari cat for a moment as it lazed languidly in the sun. I then followed my friends to the patio of a nearby café. We chatted, people-watched, and wrote in journals while drinking Turkish coffee and soaking in the atmosphere. About fifteen minutes later, I headed back toward the hotel to get some shopping money. As I approached the road I glanced at the white ledge where the gray cat had lain. He was gone-probably scampered down a cobblestoned side street to chase down rats, or down by the dock mewing at fishermen for fish guts.

Then I saw the cat. It was lying by the side of the narrow road, just a few feet from where I last saw it. That seemed an odd and precarious place to sun itself; it's going to get hit if it stays there much longer, I thought. After another step, I noticed the blood pooling near its mouth.

The cat that had lain so contentedly in the sun just a few minutes earlier was now fresh kill on the dusty street. It seemed strange that this animal had lived and died while I chatted and drank sugary coffee just twenty feet away. I hadn't heard any shout, no raise of alarm-or at least nothing that rose above the normal din of passing cars and tour guides calling to tourists. Of course there would be no shout, no alarmed elegy; why would there be? It was just another stray whose days in the sun ended abruptly with a careless jump in front of a car or motorbike. No more, no less.

Regret and sorrow tugged at me as I looked down at the cat. I immediately wished I'd extended my hand an extra three inches and petted it. I wished I'd stroked its grimy fur, gently scratched its ragged ears, letting it know that one of these passing humans had interrupted its busy day to single it out for attention and affection. The effort would have cost me nothing but perhaps a minute of warm soapy handwashing. I wanted the cat to purr, to soak up the unconditional love of a passing stranger.

The cat crystallized something ineffable for me. I went up to my hotel room for a camera. I wanted some tangible evidence that the cat had been there-a small but symbolic image proving that that specific cat I wanted to pet had existed. As far as I know, it never even saw me, never peeked through its contentedly-slit eyes to see my approaching hand. It was one of countless anonymous cats roaming the streets of Zanzibar, but to me that was my cat, and I had a tenuous and brief but emotional connection with it.

While I drank my coffee, the cat had gone from alive to dead; while I retrieved my camera, it had gone from dead to trash. Someone had removed it, almost certainly not out of respect but instead for the benefit of tourists whose image of an exotic paradise doesn't include bleeding felines by the road in the last throes of death. But the blood spot was still there, and I took a few photos of it.

They say no act of kindness, however small, is wasted. They also say a lot of trite, feel-good bumper sticker slogans. You can read whatever you want into it: That you should not wait to tell someone special that he or she is appreciated or loved. That life is fragile and people can be gone in an instant. That a sincere compliment or show of appreciation can cost nothing, but the kindness may be long remembered.

You can take whatever message you like-or none at all-from my story of a cat I didn't pet on a small island off the coast of Africa. But I can tell you this: The next time I see a stray cat that looks like it could use some kindness, I will stop what I'm doing, stoop down low, and offer my hand.