Cats patrol in the Forbidden City. Photos: CFP
By night, a mysterious colony of full-time staff appears, patrolling the ramparts of the Forbidden City on delicate, padded paws.
By day in winter, members will occasionally be found keeping warm in a corner of an office of the former imperial palace.
Tourists often fail to notice these ancient denizens wandering freely around those areas not open to visitors.
Their occupancy dates back 600 years. Compared to other cats surviving on the mean streets, starving or killed by less welcoming park keepers, these elegant felines appear to enjoy a more regal lifestyle.
The Forbidden City happily shelters mousers, but a surge in numbers challenges conservation of buildings and a clean environment for tourists.Imperial cats
About 20 out of 32 departments in the Forbidden City have adopted stray cats. In the past five years, it has spent 18,410 yuan ($2,995) on sterilizing 181 cats, according to the Chengdu Business Daily.
Founded in 1420, the Forbidden City has a long history of looking after cats. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), there was even an office in the Forbidden City for taking care of cats belonging to the royal families.
Some of today's cats might be descended from that noble lineage while others may have invited themselves in, according to Forbidden City staff.
Every cat has a name and a special mark to show it has been sterilized. One such cat is named "Ping'an," literally "safety" in Chinese, by Forbidden City curator Shan Jixiang.
"With them, the Forbidden City can avoid all the troubles that come with rodents," Shan was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
Beijing Beautiful World Aid Center for Small Animals, a non-government organization, is responsible for sterilization.
They spend about 3,682 yuan a year on sterilizing cats, paid for out of the Forbidden City's budget, said Ma Guoqing, director of the sanitation department.Managing numbers
Controlling the number of cats improves the chances of cats' survival, Shan said.
The Forbidden City has not received any reports of cats damaging the ancient buildings or hurting people.
At 8 o'clock every morning, sanitation workers examine the whole Forbidden City and clean up cat poop, Ma said.
The cats appear well integrated and the Forbidden City ensures tourists can enjoy visiting with dignity while the cats can live there with dignity too, Shan said.
Not everyone agrees with the Forbidden City's modern, tolerant approach.
Beihai Park, a royal garden located north of the Forbidden City, has stray cats too. Most were discarded by neighboring residents when their homes were demolished.
"These cats are fed by tourists," a staff member from the Park's publicity department told the Global Times on condition of anonymity. "Their survival depends on their own fortunes."
"Royal gardens should have a noble and decent atmosphere. Stray cats and the shelters built for them by tourists are inappropriate for a royal garden."
Sometimes cats mean trouble, she claimed. They had to foot the bill for a tourist who got scratched playing with a stray cat, she said.
There are no official statistics available on the number of stray cats in Beijing. In 2010 there were about 200,000 stray cats in Beijing, according to a report by the Capital Animal Welfare Association.
One fertile female can produce three or four litters a year, the Nanjing-based Modern Express reporetd, ultimately adding another 100 cats to the stray population within her lifetime.
Frequent complaints about cats' howling and their unpleasant smell are a constant headache for city authorities.
"The cats should be arranged in a special place. They might infect people," Liu Zheng, a member of the Chinese Association for Cultural Relics, told the Global Times on Sunday.
"Their accommodation and their feces affect the structure and quality of ancient buildings."
The cats' nimble mobility makes it difficult to manage them too, Liu said. Hidden dangers
Abandonment and bullying are the least of stray cats' problems. Most outdoor cats live in constant fear of slaughter.
Many stray cats went missing in Tiantan Park last fall. They were later found dead with wounds in areas of the park not monitored by close-circuit TV cameras.
The park's publicity department denied its staff had killed the cats, but nearby residents who fed them daily require further investigation, the Beijing Morning Post reported.
A total of 80 cats went missing from October to early November, and at least 30 died, residents told the newspaper.
In China, stray cats are sometimes reportedly slaughtered for fake mutton.
Two thieves were caught by police in Beijing last month and detained for stealing more than 100 cats from Xicheng district during Spring Festival, the Beijing News reported.
Zhu Shuilin, vice president of the Zhejiang Small Animal Protection Association, protested in a Hangzhou park two years ago after he found cats had been fatally poisoned in the park.
"Stray cats are part of the ecological environment in any park," Zhu said. "Their existence can help reduce the number of mice and snakes.
"I've appealed to local parks in the province to cooperate with NGOs to manage the cats, but have not received any active response," Zhu said.
Sterilization is the preferred method for controlling strays that best protects everyone's health, but it costs too much for NGOs, he said.
The government should reconsider its approach and cooperate more with NGOs on the issue in the future, Zhu said.