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The mining town of Houtong, Taiwan, was in trouble. The village of 200 was one of a number of communities in the island nation that was suffering from the electrification of the nation’s railroads and the growing demand for oil.

But while many towns never recovered from the evolution of industry, Houtong has reinvented itself as a cat lover’s paradise.

Visitors began mentioning the town’s cats in their blogs, and now dozens of cat lovers visit Houtong to photograph and play with the cats. The cat population is quickly growing to equal the town’s human population: the feline hordes now number 100 or so.

On a recent afternoon, tourists snapped photos of the cats with cell phone cameras and tickled the creatures silly with feather-tipped sticks.

“It was more fun than I imagined,” said 31-year-old administrative assistant Yu Li-hsin, who visited Houtong from Taipei. “The cats were clean and totally unafraid of people. I’ll definitely return.”

Locals are delighted with the tourist influx.

Sumarni, a 35-year-old Indonesian born woman who married a local man six years ago, is also thankful to the tourists for relieving the town’s isolation.

“My 3-year-old daughter gets to play with some children of her age when visitors bring their kids here,” she said. “There is really not any playmate of her age in the community.”

Sumarni has also benefited financially from the upswing in tourism: she has set up a profitable food stall next to her modest home.

Retiree Chan Bi-yun, 58, takes a lot of the credit for Houtong’s feline-induced rebirth.

“I started raising five cats that belonged to a neighbor who passed away nine years ago and they gave birth to more and more kitties,” she said. “Now I feed about half of Houtong’s cat population.”

Chan said most members of her cadre of kitties wander freely and she provides special help for abandoned kittens. She gets help from volunteers who provide free veterinary care and cat food.

Like Sumarni, she has profited from Houtong’s new image; she runs a stall that sells cat-related souvenirs.

Cell phone charms with different feline shapes appeared to be the best sellers, but cat-imprinted purses were giving them a good run for their money.

[Source: The Associated Press]

Note: This reporter does not approve of the unchecked reproduction of cats, no matter how good they are for the local economy, and urges readers to have their cats spayed or neutered and/or help with trap-neuter-return operations to control feral cat populations.