Tiger Walking on Brown Rock
Photo by Robert Stokoe
brown tiger lying on gray rock during daytime
Photo by Laura Nyhuis

What is up with the cats’ tails? I asked a local. If you have ever been to Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s larger Islands, you would have definitely noticed, and perhaps be bemused by, the strange tails that adorn the pleasant feral cats. Some are stumpy, some curly, some crooked, some are just average, long and slender.  I asked a local about the curious cat’s tails, and he shrugged and said, “They are just born that way.”

My husband and I arrived on the Island of Sumatra to do some volunteer work in a small town in the province of Riau surrounded by the jungle. I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.

Coming across a black cat, she watched me from a safe distance with her big green eyes. She was standing next to a table, and as I ventured closer, I saw three kittens, possibly a week old. She meowed at me and seemed quiet, tame for a feral cat. She obviously was used to human contact, as some food had been put there. Maybe someone had dumped her when they found that she was pregnant. I asked some other local people in the area if she belonged to anyone, but, like the last guy, they just shrugged. “Many people had cats in the town,” one of them said. As someone was obviously feeding her, I left slightly less concerned and went back to our house.

 Eating a slightly spicy version of nasi goreng, a popular Indonesian fried rice dish with pieces of meat and vegetable added, at one of the local eateries, a cat sauntered by, gave me a bored look and kept going.  Then it happened again with another cat. And again. These cats weren’t hungry. They seemed satisfied, well fed and content. Another strange thing was that they had stubby tails.  

This town had so many feral cats and at least ninety percent of them had stubby tails. They would wander around the town, sleeping in shops, lay outside shops, on top of tables and under tables, being fed by the locals. They also survived in the Sumatran jungle. Many Indonesians believe that cats with short tails or no tails are better ratters, so they look after them.

But how did they get here?  I decided to look into it.  It seems that some of the cats in Indonesia and elsewhere through Asia may have descended from the Japanese bobtail breed.  According to informed popular belief, most of the cats got wiped out by some poison spread by the Japanese during occupation during World War II, and so there was a rat invasion. Cats were likely imported from Japan and China. This mixed with interbreeding has increased the chances that a cat will be born with a smaller tail.  

It is also believed that the small Indonesian cats are not descended from domestic cats, but small jungle felines. They are cousins of the true Siamese cats. Their bodies are narrow and flexible. The muzzles are square, and the eyes are large in proportion to the face to aid in hunting in dense foliage. The feet are very small and the back legs longer than the front. These cats are great jumpers.  

I decided to go back to see if the feral cats were still where I had last seen them, which they were. The mother cat had patches of fur missing all over her body. This was obviously from surviving and hunting in the jungle. She had a slim body, pitch black fur, long thin legs, and small delicate features with big green eyes. Very much a Siamese resemblance. I would visit her every day with some food, and when I went away, I would often wonder what would happen to her and her kittens.

With little food and water, in very hot humid conditions, my husband and I decided to rescue her and the three kittens.  We were prepared to do anything to ensure the safety and well-being of the mother cat and her kittens. We put them in the car and brought them home. I noticed the kittens all had long tails with kinks at the end. The mother cat had a stubby tail. Two of her kittens were tabbies, one, in particular, looking exactly like a little leopard cat.  

I discovered that these creatures are called Bengal cats, a crossbreed of an ordinary domestic cat with a leopard cat. They have beautiful natures and can be very affectionate, though some might find them a little aloof. Leopard cats love to catch fish, and Bengals like to play around in their water bowl. I called my two Bengal kittens Tigger and Minx. Tigger was lighter in colour and Minx much darker. Tigger was the most affectionate of the two. Minx didn’t like to be cuddled and was a little bit wild. The Bengal kittens were great furniture scratchers. The third kitten was a female with white paws, so I called her Mittens. She was gentle like her mother. Chloe lived a very rough life before she arrived at my home. She is a cat of courage and poise, with a quiet gentle nature. 

The Bengal cat is one of the fastest-growing breeds in popularity of recent years. Due to its hybrid background, the Bengal has not been accepted by the largest cat registry, the Fanciers’ Association (CFA).  However, the International Cat Association and the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) do register this breed.

Bengal cats

Seeing my new life through the eyes of an extraordinary feline such as Chloe, as a cat lover writing about the feral cats of Sumatra and doing all of this through the eyes of a cat is never less than perfectly endearing.

She would snuggle up to me on the couch or on the bed, and the kittens were always at my feet.

When Chloe fell pregnant again, she gave birth to six kittens in the bottom of my cupboard, all different colours and all with stubby tails.  The second father was discovered to be a large white domestic cat.  With a proper diet, my cats were in really good condition, and Chloe’s fur grew back in the patches. She now had a sleek black coat.

As the first three kittens became young teenagers, they began to do their walkabouts in the jungle, as they still had that wild instinct in them. I would imagine they would venture back into the jungle to find a mate and continue to breed, keeping the snake and rodent population down for the locals. One morning, my little female kitten Mittens, wandered off into the jungle, and of course, never came back.  She had been hanging around a larger male, whom I named Bobbitt, with markings much like a leopard cat, another Bengal feline.  He was very aloof and kept his distance. I guess it was Mittens’ time to venture off and start her own family. At least I hope that’s why she never came back. I never saw Bobbitt again. Since then, time passed and due to being very busy with our work and me doing a fair bit of travelling, I decided to rehome our cats, knowing in my heart, I had given them a good start in life. They are living with loving local families, and I always get news and photos about them. The six new kittens of course are now happily running around.  I have many photos of the cats while they still lived with me, which will always remind me of my experience with these beautiful feral cats of Sumatra, and the privilege of raising a very special breed, the Bengal. Who knows, we might rescue another one.

Feral cat interbred with jungle wild cat

Though small in build, these cats are tough and remarkably intelligent, surviving monitor lizards, which can grow as long as two metres in length, King Cobras, wild boar and other larger wild catsof the jungle.

At least six species of wild cats live, and seem to do so harmoniously, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  The Sumatran tiger is the largest. The Sunda clouded leopards and Asiatic golden cats are in similar size but a little larger than a domestic cat, then the marbled cats and leopard cats, similar size to domestic cats.

brown and black leopard on brown soil
Leopard Cat


leopard walking on gray sand during daytime
Sunda Clouded Leopard

Several cat breeds are defined by the morphological variation of the tail. The Japanese Bobtail is a breed that has been accepted for registration only within the past 50 years; however, the congenital kinked tail variants defining this breed were documented in the Far East centuries ago, and the cats are considered ‘good luck’ in several Asian cultures.

We have found the people of Sumatra are some of the most friendly, polite, and relaxed we have met. They are proud of their rich heritage and, despite their isolation, are eager to share what they have with the outside world, including their feral cats. Their smiles are infectious, and their hospitality is unmatched.

We have had the privilege of living on the island of Sumatra for seven months. Known as the “secret valley of Sumatra” by the Dutch, was one of the last places in Indonesia to fall to their control, as late as 1903.  Local cultures remain very traditional, and tourists are few and far between.

I plan to visit my extraordinary cat Chloe in the next couple of weeks. Who knows what interesting stories her kittens might provide for me, and so the saga of the Sumatran feral cats continues? I wonder if she’ll remember me? 


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