Saigonese take wild cats, birds under wing

By Diep Phan   May 13, 2020 | 09:14 pm PT
It has been 15 years since Hong Tuyet Mai started nannying wild birds and cats at Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden.

At 4 a.m., Hong Tuyet Mai, 66, wakes up while many others in the southern metropolis remain in bed. On her old bicycle, she first visits an insect market in District 5's Cho Lon, buying worms and crickets.

On her way home, she picks up some fish. Her purchases are among the most favored food of a flock of birds and clowder of cats at Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, for whom she has cared these past 15 years.

"They would be miserable if I abandoned them," Mai said after feeding her adoptees.

Mai releases crickets for the birds to eat. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Mai releases crickets for the birds to eat. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Selling toys to children visiting the zoo over the past three decades, Mai knows all the local vendors, who refer to her as Aunty Nam. She has one son, now married and living with his family. Mai herself resides with her elder sister on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in District 3.

Many years ago, when her son was in grade seven, he asked Mai to buy a cage for a couple of birds. Since, the duo has habitually cared for small lost birds at home. 

She collected and scattered the food left by her son’s bird in the yard each morning, sparrows flocking to grab every morsel. At the zoo, Mai too started feeding the birds bread crumbs or leftover rice, attracting sparrows, starlings, and pigeons.

Five years ago, Mai came across three abandoned kittens she took under her wing. Today, dozens of wild cats gorge on her generosity.

"It's grandma, come here and eat. Do not be afraid, it's grandma," she would call to the cats at 9 a.m. daily, after having deboned the fish. 

The Covid-19 pandemic closed down Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden, leaving Mai little money to buy food, earning less than VND100,000 ($4.6) a day. 

Now, all she has to feed them are bones and guts.

"I am afraid they might starve," Mai lamented.

Mai and her feline friend. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Mai and a feline companion. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Two weeks ago, she sold her ring for VND2 million ($86), hoping the money would help her tiny friends and herself hunker down until the pandemic passes. On learning about any free rice distribution, she would rush over at once to stock up.

"When I had money, I bought crickets every day, but now I only do so every other day," she said.

According to banh mi vendor Phung, 59, Aunty Nam always shares her box of chicken rice, eating the rice with soy sauce and saving the meat for her beloved cats.

Less than a kilometer from Mai's place, next to the Cathedral on Cong Xa Paris Street, Nguyen Ngoc Quang Thanh, 42, has also cared for hundreds of pigeons for over a decade.

At 10 a.m. each day, she opens her tea stall outside Hoa Binh Primary School, soon attracting her flock with the promise of a feed.

"As long as I continue to operate here, the pigeons will not go hungry."

Thanh sits and waits for the pigeons to eat. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Thanh watches her flock feed. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

The vendor has sold tea and other drinks for over 20 years. In 2005, after the bird flu epidemic, the pigeons were routinely fed by a local photographer. Before passing away, he had asked Thanh to help him care for the animals.

The number of pigeons has since increased from dozens to 500. Each day, Thanh spends over VND100,000 ($4.6) buying them rice and peas, creating a tourist draw. 

"The birds belong to the sky, not to me. But if I do not protect them, they will be harmed," Thanh maintained.

Three weeks of national social distancing was the longest period Thanh has spent jobless. Regardless, she traveled from her house in District 6 to District 1 each morning to feed the birds.

"Without Thanh, the birds would rarely sit on the pavement, preferring trees or the Post Office roof," said Hai, who usually brings his children to feed Thanh's tiny friends.

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