For the cats of Istanbul, life isn't always the cat's meow
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
I have written this blog post in my mind many time. Every time I see, feed, or pet an Istanbul street cat, I feel reinvigorated to tell their stories. But the contrast between how I was brought up to understand and deal with domestic animals, the dogs and cats of this world, and what I see every day on the streets of Turkey are so at odds that it is hard to reconcile and understand.
On the one hand, it isn't for me to judge lives and a culture that I am not a part of, really, but only a visitor. I'm not in their shoes. And I have Turkish friends that I do not want to offend.
On the other, are we to stand by helplessly while these animals are neglected and too often face an early and painful death? There are no simple answers.
My family has always had cats and dogs, often in multiples. Going way back, they were working animals, and earned their keep. The dogs worked on the farms of my ancestors, and the cats kept the mice and rats away. Later, in my growing up years, we always had a few. The were a part of our lives. We had a solid white cat named Honeybunch and a tuxedo cat named Jinx, among many others. I loved them all. My family was very poor, but we always managed to feed the animals and get medical care for them when necessary.
Here, the cats come in all colors and kinds. Black, white, orange, gray. Tuxedos, calicos, and torties. Especially calicos; I have never seen so many calicos in my life! The cats in Istanbul are striped, solid, fluffy, short hair, long hair. Kittens and old cats. To be sure, some of the cats live in homes with their humans. But what everyone calls the Istanbul cat is the one who walks the city sidewalks and alleyways, and hangs out around restaurants if so fortunate. It frequents old Constantinople's museums and palaces, but also modern Istanbul's trash bins and sewers, with its space constantly challenged by the ever-exploding concrete expansion of Istanbul.
No one knows exactly how many street cats call Istanbul home. One estimate is 30,000, but that number seems too low; others just say hundreds of thousands. I can go outside our apartment right now and see a dozen cats wandering around, some lounging as only a cat can do, some scurrying, some digging in the garbage bins for food.
Go to a restaurant--and I mean just about any restaurant here--and there are resident cats, generally well fed by the restaurant owners, staff, and customers. When I asked the waiter at an upscale restaurant near the Galata Tower if I could give the cat under our table some leftover kebab he said of course, if I wanted to, but the restauant takes all the leftover food at the end of the day and feeds the local homeless cats and dogs.
Away from the restaurants, there are people in each neighborhood who make the effort to take care of the cats on their streets. They put out food, water, and sometimes even shelter. If a cat is hurt or ill, they take the cat to the the local veterinarian who provides services at reduced cost. (Vets are supposed to charge 50 percent of the standard rate to provide medical care to street cats and dogs.)
There is a much-acclaimed documentary that tells the story of these street cats. It's called Kedi (Turkish for cat). The film follows the lives of seven cats who live on Istanbul's streets. Though it paints something of an idyllic picture, it also shows the bond between the cats and those Istanbul residents--some who have very little themselves--who care for them. You can find a trailer here:
You can watch the entire video on YouTube Red or Hula, among other locations. I encourage you to watch it; you will fall in love with the cats, even if you are not a "cat person!"
Why does Istanbul have so many stray cats, what is being done about it, and why, you might ask, should anything be done? We have our own alley cats in the U.S after all, as well as many, many cases of animal abuse--in the U.S., throughout Europe, and indeed around the world.
Istanbul's cats probably came from all the ships that docked at its huge ports over the centuries. Cat are supposed to bring good fortune to ships, as well as control the rodent population.
The number of cats has grown because Turks do not believe in euthanasia for population control as Americans do (i can't speak for other nationalities), yet they seem to be greatly uneducated when it comes to population control. The female cats are having litter after litter at young ages. They often already have diseases or poor immune systems, and they pass that on to their kittens. The protection that is supposed to come from the mother cat's milk is often no protection at all.
I realize that many people are not going to push for anything; cats (and dogs) are a street nuisance to them. But the ones who take care of the animals need to educate friends, neighbors, veterinarians, those in power about the absolute need for population control; i.e., birth control for these cats.
You might think that I have preached long enough, but I hope that some of you have read this all the way through. To my Turkish friends and family, please do not pass these creatures by on the streets. Please help them. A little food, a little water, some human touch will go far. And please do what you can for some kind of population control for these animals. The population will only continue to explode otherwise.
Don't turn a blind eye. These cats are suffering from hunger, dehydration, and diseases. The average lifespan of a street cat in 3-6 years; the average for a "home" cat is 14-16 years.
Bicir, the little one
I have a special reason to write about this. We actually adopted an Istanbul street kitten. We named him Bicir, the little one, because he was so tiny. We had him for only 10 days before he died from Feline Infectious Peritonitis, or FIP, the deadliest of cat diseases. Bicir was only about three and a half months old. He had ear tufts and tufts growing on the bottom of his little feet. A soft, silky coat, and the most beautiful cat eyes that we had ever seen. His life consisted of three months fighting for garbage to eat and trying to survive among grown cats, and about a half month of suffering from the most feared killer of cats. I hear that it is rampant in Turkey.
Facebook Groups to assist cats in Turkey:
Cihangir...Cool for Cats
Tails of Istanbul
(Cover photo courtesy 2summers)