Bali was supposed to be a relaxing trip with cocktails, snorkelling, good food and little else planned.
Then along came Emma Sophia.
We first met beside the pool at my rented villa in Umalas. She was hungry, her ears were tattered, and she liked to meow a lot.
After I bought the stray cat some food from the Circle K corner store we became inseparable. When I stumbled home drunk one night, she crawled onto my bed and stayed the night.
Only later did I find out she was afflicted with scabies, a highly infectious zoonotic mite that burrows under the skin and causes severe itching and rashes.
Stowaway cat demands a new life
The villa owner told me, she was a stray. He would be returning soon with his ferocious dogs and they had previously killed a cat.
Having volunteered as a native bird rescuer, I’m no fan of cats because of the damage they can inflict on wildlife.
Then as I was packing my clothes, Emma Sophia jumped into my bag like a stowaway. I couldn't leave her.
I took to email, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find her treatment and passage back to Australia. NSW politician Emma Hurst came to the rescue with details of a cat sanctuary, and so I named her Emma as a thank you.
When I told my remarkably supportive girlfriend that we’d be cancelling our plans the next day to visit a cat sanctuary, I thought it only right to give Emma a second name, Sophia.
Expat Aussie welcomes stray cat into her sanctuary
The Villa Kitty sanctuary is located an hour away in Ubud, a village famous for its monkey temple, and is run by Australian expat Elizabeth Henzell.
The cats are housed in large open enclosures which keep the cats safe and the local wildlife free from harm.
Ms Henzell’s charity is home to just under 400 cats, and her team of 40 local employees sees around a thousand animals a year, which is no surprise given that the tiny island is home to hundreds of thousands of strays.
Like in Australia, the island has both cat lovers and haters, and sometimes Ms Henzell has to attend to animals inflicted with horrific injuries.
“This week, I got this message saying: We’ve got a woman in our compound and she’s thrown boiling water over one of the cats," she said.
“It took them two weeks to recognise that her wounds were badly infected… they were shocking.”
Charity struggling with hundreds of cats
Despite Sunset Vet offering Villa Kitty subsidised treatment, treating the wounds is expected to cost hundreds of dollars.
The charity has received grants in the past, but has expanded to three times its original size since opening in 2011.
It now runs entirely on donations, and raising these funds is frequently a struggle, but Ms Henzell manages to keep the staff paid and the cats medicated, housed and fed.
Villa Kitty sterilises 90 cats a month
The charity currently houses 393 cats
Around one cat is adopted from the charity each day
About 1000 cats enter Villa Kitty each year
$30 will buy three cat vaccines
How Villa Kitty is helping Bali’s stray cat problem
Bringing Emma Sophia back to Australia would likely cost thousands of dollars. It quickly became clear my money would be better spent as a small ongoing donation to the charity which would keep her safe and healthy.
I am sent regular updates on Emma Sophia's health. Two weeks since she came into care she remains a little cranky, but she’s healing from her scabies which incidentally she didn’t pass onto me or my girlfriend.
Villa Kitty actively works to rehome may of the island’s stray cats, and asks adopting owners to keep the animals inside at night. They’re also working actively to reduce unwanted cat numbers in cities.
“Our mission now is to get vets around the island to supply cats with vaccines against viruses and offer free sterilisation,” Ms Henzell said.
“We will supply the vaccine and sterilisation because people can't afford them, and the vets need to be paid because they will not do this for free.”
Ms Henzell is seeing cat welfare slowly improving across Bali, and attitudes to animal welfare improve, but for her the improvement can’t come soon enough.
“There is slow change happening. But you know, I'm 70 I want it to happen now,” she said.
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