The street cats of İstanbul

The street cats of İstanbul


April 09, 2012, Monday/ 17:55:00/ BROOKS EMERSON

My downstairs neighbor stopped me a couple of weeks ago as I was bringing down food for the garden cats: “Brooks, do me a favor and stop feeding those cats, will you?” I was a little surprised because both of us love animals and we had been feeding them since I moved in a couple of years ago.

She explained that the cat food was drawing the attention of every cat in the neighborhood and these strays were turning the garden into a cat box. The male cats were also jumping up onto her window sills and spraying her windows.

It only took a couple of weeks of not feeding them until most of the cats stopped coming by. I started going out into the street to feed the cats that I could find, but I noticed that the cat population doesn’t seem as strong as it was when I first got here in 2002.

These street cats appear to differ from the street cats in the States –- most here appear, on the surface, to be well fed, healthy and active. However, my vet says that stray cats suffer not only from disease and hunger, but dehydration as well. I have seen more of the unhealthy cats in poorer areas or when I have traveled to some out-of-the-way locations. Once when visiting a rural town along the Bosporus, I encountered a scary, rabid-looking cat. Needless to say, I didn’t stop to pet it.

Disease and population control

In 2004, the Turkish government passed a law to protect animals. They wanted to increase humane responses to stray populations because there were more incidences of poisoning and other cruel acts from people trying to deal with the problems of overpopulation and disease. The process of catching, neutering/spaying and releasing or sheltering animals became a huge focus. The government and private agencies began working more diligently to decrease the spread of disease across cat and dog populations – especially because of rabies. They began working together to capture and vaccinate animals. You’ve probably seen the dogs with the ear tags that are there to mark the animals that have been vaccinated (and sometimes spayed or neutered, as well). I haven’t seen any cats with ear tags, but I’ve found that many of the cats are being treated and released.

Apparently, there are shelters and other agencies that will neuter street cats for a reasonable price, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about them. If you would like to help the efforts, I would recommend taking the animals to a trusted vet. My vet, Selçuk, will neuter street cats for a reduced rate – there are different rates for females versus males because the surgery for female cats is more extensive, so they have to be hospitalized for a few days.

Places to go

Just like in the States, there are animal shelters in İstanbul where animals are cared for and from which people can adopt dogs or cats. You could consider bringing stray cats there for care (including vaccinations and spaying/neutering), donating money to support them, or volunteering your time helping them care for the animals. In addition to animal shelters, many organizations exist to help stray animals. The following agencies in İstanbul capture strays, and provide them with much-needed vaccinations, spaying/neutering, and a safe place to sleep. If you’re interested in adopting a cat, they have all kinds of pure-bred and mixed cats and dogs available for adoption. If you don’t have room for a pet, you can always drop by with much-needed supplies, like food and medicine, or donate money to the cause:

- Çevre ve Sokak Hayvanları Derneği (Association for Stray Animals) (212) 227 72 65 The location is right next to the police station at the entrance to Yildiz Park on the sea road going toward Ortaköy.

- Evsiz Hayvanları ve Doğayı Koruma Derneği (Association for Stray Animals and Protecting Nature)  email: [email protected]

- Yedikule Hayvan Barınağı (Yedikule Animal Shelter) - This shelter has lots of dogs. [there is English available on this website] (212) 633 58 57 - Sahipsiz Hayvanlar Koruma Derneği (Society for the Protection of Stray Animals) [English available] Florya Cad. no: 27/B Şenlikköy

Florya - Bakırköy / İSTANBUL. This agency also does a complete spay/neuter and vaccination with ear tags to alert people that the animals have been taken care of already. Then, the animals are sent back out onto the streets. However, they do check on the animals every so often and they try to find homes for many strays. email: [email protected]

Cat culture

Street cats are an integral part of the culture of İstanbul – even President Obama took time to pet Gli the cat at Hagia Sophia in 2009.

There is a famous story about Muezza, the Prophet Muhammad’s cat: this cat was famous for killing a venomous snake that had slithered into the Prophet’s sleeve. In return for saving his life, Muhammad blessed the cat with the ability to land on its feet.

The cat is seen as a clean animal in Turkey, whereas many people in the States think of stray cats as dirty and mangy. In the States, there are many superstitions about dangerous cats – like the belief that you have to keep cats away from babies or they’ll steal their spirits (more like they’ll steal the babies’ milk).

Cats are revered here. In Turkey, there’s a saying that if you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God. In addition to the tale of Muezza saving Muhammad’s life, many other stories exist about the luck that cats bring.

Controversy over spaying and neutering

I feed the strays in the neighborhood as much as I can in addition to looking after my own cats, but it’s hard to keep up because they keep multiplying. This led me to ask about neutering. I thought that spaying/neutering was no big deal -- boy was I wrong. Most people were OK when I talked about spaying the female cats, but mention neutering and forget it! I got lots of negative comments from Turkish friends about how I ruined my cat’s sex life by having him neutered. Uh, no. I think I saved his life because I would have killed him if he had sprayed all over my furniture. Furthermore, my cat would be more frustrated not being neutered because he’d have all the parts but no female cat visitors to spend time with.

Many male cats are turned out because of spraying. Life in the wild is a lot less healthy and safe than an existence with free food and water, love, and a quiet place to play and sleep. And have you ever been around a female in heat? Well, they often get thrown out due to their howling –- it’s like no noise you’ve ever heard. As soon as the cat gets thrown outside, it’s pregnant: another reason why cats get dumped. So maybe my cat won’t spend his nights like Don Juan, but at least he’ll have a long, safe and healthy life.

Also, some devastating diseases are spread more readily through mating. There’s a form of AIDS called Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). My sister lost two cats because of this disease. She had rescued a pregnant momma cat who passed it on to her kitten (two of the kittens were stillborn because of it). The cats suffered prior to being euthanized. She rescued another cat that died from Feline Infectious Peritonitis –- this disease is very painful. Not only does she recommend spaying and neutering, but she suggests quarantining cats at the vet’s and having them tested for disease prior to adding them to the existing pet population to prevent the tragedy of losing an entire family of cats.

If you aren’t sure about adopting, consider building one of those easy-to-assemble kitty houses during the winter for the neighborhood cats-- there are several YouTube videos about this. However, like my neighbor’s window, your cat house might get some special perfume sprayed on it to let all the females know where the bachelor pad is.

Of course, balance is a good thing. Spaying and neutering has to be balanced with allowing some re-populating. If you severely reduce the cat population, then you’ll probably see a huge increase in the rat population. I know that in New York City, where I came here from, it was not unusual to see rats and mice walking along in the subways and in garbage and sometimes on the street. And, trust me, I would rather see a cute little kitten than a baby rat any day. That being said, cats can have two to five kittens per litter and up to three litters per year–you do the math!

My message is: Do what you can to be kind to these stray cats -- their lives are hard. Turkish culture allows for them to be fed, but draws the line at touching them. These poor little creatures are starving for attention. Take time to pet these beautiful animals. Put out some food and water from time to time. If you have the time, contact one of the agencies above to find out what you can do to help out.