Saigon couple cancels wedding to fund cat shelter

By Minh Tam   February 13, 2023 | 05:32 am PT
When Ngo Dinh Van Khanh and Do Duong Truc Lam took in four strays three years ago, they had no idea they would one day run a cat sanctuary.

One night in early February, Khanh was feeding her four-legged "babies" in a two-story house on Huynh Tan Phat Street in HCMC's District 7.

She picked up a cat named Nu who she calls "the eldest sister of more than a hundred cats here."

The 25-year-old revealed that the couple and their cats would move their cat shelter to a new house in Da Lat Town, Lam Dong Province, at the end of this month.

Do Duong Truc Lam (L) and Ngo Dinh Van Khanh raises over 100 stray cats at their shelter HCMCs District 7 on February 1, 2023.

Do Duong Truc Lam (L) and Ngo Dinh Van Khanh are raising over 100 stray cats at their shelter HCMC's District 7 on February 1, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Minh Tam

It all started when Khanh and Lam, her boyfriend, came home late one night in 2019 and came across four stray cats near a temple in Binh Thanh District. Seeing the hungry cats wandering around searching for food, the couple decided to bring them home.

"All I could think was that they were impoverished and that I ought to help them," Khanh said. But she didn't imagine that they would one day be an indispensable part of her life.

The couple frequently argued at first because they had to spend all day cleaning up cat waste, as well as feeding and caring for them.

When Khanh sobbed alone one night missing her deceased mother, a cat named Ro Phi jumped onto her lap and began licking the tears.

"At that point, I realized that my kitties have unconditional love for me," she said. This also prompted the couple to adopt more stray cats from their neighborhood.

Khanh's neighbors have been complaining about the unpleasant odors brought on by the increasing number of cats she and Lam adopt.

Eventually, management of the building they lived in prohibited the keeping of so many pets, so the couple had to leave and find a new home for both them and their cats.

When Khanh and Lam's company had to vacate their office space in 2020 due to the spread of Covid-19, the couple rented the property to house their growing cat population. They named the new shelter "Vuon Meo Lang Thang" (Stray Cat Garden).

They have cleverly partitioned the two-story office into several living quarters, each with its own patio. The bottom floor and hallway are designated as safe havens for healthy felines, while their bedroom is upstairs along with an isolation areas for cats that are sick. The third story is a study and a nursery for nursing mother cats.

Khanh made good use of the bookcase by purchasing soft baskets to transform its various nooks and crannies into cozy sleeping quarters for the cats. She also had personalized collar and name tags made for each garden resident.

"I still keep the collars and name tags of deceased pets as keepsakes," she said.

Khanh keeps the collars and name tags of deceased felines she rescued. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Khanh keeps the collars and name tags of deceased felines she rescued. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

After two years of Covid lockdowns, during which many cats were abandoned, Khanh and Lam became involved in efforts to save them and find them new homes.

"Every cat we've ever rescued has been like a new member of the family. It's the joy we get when we succeed," Lam, 28, said.

During the past three years, they have saved the lives of roughly 600 "babies" and are currently caring for over 100 more.

The couple claims there is no universal rule for rescue operations, all that is required is a willingness to "assist" whenever animals are in need.

Each rescued cat, said Khanh, has its own backstory. She is so devoted to her cats that she can recall all their names without looking at their tags.

She pointed at one of her cats and said she spent almost VND10 million ($423.55) renting a security camera so she could save a kitten that had been stuck in a water pipe on a roof in Go Vap District.

The saddest and most heartbreaking case was when a landlord who refused to allow them to rescue a cat stuck in a water pipe. Instead, the landlord jammed cement over the entrance hole.

"It's a horrible feeling when there is nothing we can do," Khanh lamented.

The couple decided to become freelance advertisers so that they would have more time to devote to their cats.

At 10 a.m., the couple spends the morning feeding and medicating the cats before taking the sick ones to the vet and then back home for dinner.

Khanh said she goes to bed between 2-3 a.m. every day.

"Since I started cat-sitting, I've stopped going out for coffee or going on vacations with my friends," she said.

She admits that it's expensive to rescue and care for stray cats. She explained that the majority of the cats she’s rescued had been gravely injured and that no one has wanted to adopt them.

"I also bear the high cost of their medical care," she added. Therefore, the couple must evaluate each rescue case individually to determine whether or not they have the resources to properly care for the animal.

In order to keep her shelter running, Khanh and Lam use both personal funds and proceeds from regular online donations via social media.

If the situation is critical enough, she and Lam call the vet and take the pet here to be treated even though it could cause them financial hardship.

In the beginning, she claimed, her cat shelter was perpetually broke.

Khanh's veterinarian bills racked up to VND35 million by the end of 2020, and she ultimately had to borrow money from friends and family to pay it off.

"It costs around VND2-3 million a day for me to feed and care for all these cats," she said.

When asked about her financial situation, she said, "I'm always in a position of lacking money and borrowing, simply try to go to work and pay it back gradually."

Khanh hugs a white cat named Nu, the oldest cat at the shelter, on February 1, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Khanh hugs a white cat named Nu, the oldest cat at the shelter, on February 1, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

In mid-2021, the couple had asked their parents’ permission to postpone their wedding so they could use the money they had saved to rent a 1,500-square-meter plot of land on which to construct a more suitable home for their cats. They then spent VND500 million on the construction costs.

With the use of social media, the two started to spread the word about their rescue efforts and they now provide regular updates to their social media followers about the stray cats they’re tending to.

Thien Ly, 32, from District 7, has been following Khanh's cats on Facebook for over two years.

After meeting the Khanh and Lam in person, Ly said she could immediately sense their affection for cats.

"There have been days when they were having dinner and heard about a cat in need of rescue, and so they often ask me to watch their pets so they could go help the injured feline," she said.

As for Khanh, she feels her cats do not feel at home in their current residence. The Dong Nai Province native hopes that the shelters they’re building in Da Lat will be "a meaning gift from me to my babies."

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