Siem Reap’s famous cat lady, Josette Vanneur, arrives at the Cat Pagoda* at 8.30am sharp – as she does every second day and as she has done for the last five-and-a-half years. She begins to set out feeding plates for the multiple cats and dogs she’s going to feed today, when suddenly she tenses because David Bowie, known for his past extreme aggression, saunters over with a bad attitude. But Josette’s gentle hands relax him and she notes he’s much more manageable since his recent castration.
David Bowie is a mutt, so-named because Josette found and rescued him on the day that David Bowie died, and while Josette is known as the cat lady she doesn’t discriminate between cats and dogs.
All dogs are welcome providing they get their acts together, and curb snarling, baring teeth and any otherwise hostile behaviors towards the cats, especially at mutual feeding time.
Josette’s currently feeding 25 cats and seven dogs and as she organizes the feeding she gives a sort of ‘guided tour’ of each animal, its condition, noting that this cat lost an eye, that cat has had half its left ear chewed off, this cat has feline HIV of all things, this dog lost a chunk of his tail in a nasty fight and David Bowie, well, he’s been though the works, missing some bits and rearranging mental derangement.
Josette is half a year short of serving six years at the frontline of cat and dog rescue in Siem Reap, and last lost track of the number of rescued animals.
But she does list some numbers – cats sterilized, 130; cats adopted out, 103; dogs adopted: 14, plus quite a few spayed.
She’s done this, she says, with a little help from her friends including Dr Buntha (Ouk Hok Si), Dr Trish Johansen, World Vets, Rosy Guesthouse – which organises the pagoda cats’ annual fundraiser with great success (well over $2,000 last year) – and Georges Rhumerie Restaurant which sponsors the pagoda cats with a monthly cat food cash donation and cats’ t-shirts.
Josette Vanneur is one of a long list of fascinating expats who call Cambodia home.
Originally Belgian, she moved to Paris, changed her nationality to French, and worked in the French movie industry for 14 years.
“I was paid to watch movies. I found the dream job, supervising the French subtitling of American films being distributed in France,” she says. “I have fond memories of my busy but sophisticated life, with film premieres, meeting American movie directors such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Alan Pakula, and attending film festivals.”
While working in Paris she developed such a fascination for Japan that she eventually moved there to live, with her cat, in October 1988.
“Whenever I saw a Japanese movie, a documentary about Japan, or photos of Japanese arts, I was fascinated,” she says.
“I decided to take a group tour for three weeks and it was a dream throughout. The exquisite arts of Japan were irresistible to me and, as soon as I was back in Paris, I started learning the language as well as the tea ceremony, ikebana and calligraphy.”
Fifteen days after arriving in Japan she had a job with a big Japanese tour operator.
“The founder never had a non-Japanese staff in his Tokyo office and he offered me a three-day trial,” she days.
“That job lasted 21 years and work-wise I learned to be as demanding and precise as the Japanese.”
In 2010 she retired and moved to Cambodia, where she’d originally visited as a tourist.
“After my first visit I had only one thing in my mind back in Japan: Cambodia,” she says. “I started meeting Cambodian students in Tokyo and Japanese NGOs helping Cambodia. I traveled to Cambodia time and time again, until one of these NGOs asked me to go help them in their Phnom Penh office.
“Which I did for five months, but it was too stressful and I decided to quit and came to live in Siem Reap.”
Josette already had an animal welfare volunteering history before arriving in Siem Reap, and once here she noticed that the many cats that found refuge in pagodas were in poor shape.
Although she is a cat lover, she extended her care to dogs as well because, she says, “I could not ignore the plight of the dogs living at the pagoda.”
She teamed up with an Aussie vet, Katie Russel, and in January 2012 they started rescuing stray dogs and cats.
Josette also checked cats living in pagodas and noted that those sheltered at Wat Athvea, were in most need of help. In February 2013, she began feeding the Wat Athvea cats, launching Siem Reap Pagoda Cats.
But on March 25, 2015 tragedy stuck – all the pagoda cats disappeared and Josette discovered that a senior visiting the pagoda to make Khmer New Year arrangements had ordered instant removal of all the cats, which were put in plastic bags and thrown in ponds or just dumped.
A horrified Josette immediately quit that pagoda, and found a new pagoda where the monks were obviously more humane to the cats and dogs, and to this day she’s based there. And perhaps it’s all a bit karmic too because today Louie, a dog saved by Josette, is migrating to the UK and Josette posted a poignant FB message saying, “Bye bye to Louie, adopted pagoda dog who is going to the UK.
“In January 2016, I found by chance a puppy with a badly injured leg and in poor health on my way out from my cats’ pagoda. Rescued on the same day and transported to Dr Trish, he was operated on, treated and then went to a foster home for a month-long recovery.
“On the very day he was due to return to the pagoda, Emily, his fosterer, said no, he was to live with her.
“Louie has been living a very happy life with Emily ever since. Emily is now returning to the UK, with Louie on board, ready to start a new life in the countryside.”
*Josette declines to name or identify the pagoda to ensure ongoing peace for her cats and dogs.