Prior to visiting Turkey, a friend told me of the cats of Turkey. There are cats everywhere, she told me. The Turks love cats. You’ll be in heaven.
And I was.
As a proud cat person, deeply missing our two feline children back in Portland, Istanbul filled my days with kitteh love. The street where our AirBnB hosts lived was aflood with cats. We estimated there was at least one cat for every 100 meters.
With no real organized garbage collection system, residents chuck bags of trash out of their windows to the streets below, much to the delight of the cats, who sort through the discards of waste. Further, individuals, cafes, and shop owners collectively care for the thousands of stray cats that rule the streets of Istanbul by leaving out food, constructing shelters, and even taking a sick cat to the vet, if necessary.
And, we can’t forget the cats who took to the stage of the recent G20 Summit in Antalya.
After months of witnessing disgusting and heart-breaking displays of animal treatment during our journey, our visit to Istanbul elevated my spirits and mended my belief in humanity.
Permitted nearly everywhere, cats climbed onto my lap during meals in restaurants, slept in between window rails of apartments, and inside cardboard boxes outside of markets. There is even a documentary film, Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul, that shows the city through the eyes of nine different cats. The film is due to be released soon.
Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı near Taksim Square, is simply known as the Cat Park. Home to hundreds of cats, the park is a tourist attraction, where travelers missing their cats at home – like us – can go and get their feline on. Friendly and accustomed to human interaction, most Turkish cats willingly received my love and returned it with affection.
There, I befriended an adorable tuxedo cat who climbed up to my shoulder and purred in my ear. Another cat joined us for a snack, hopping into Dave’s lap, indifferent of the two dogs we had by our side. Though I could have stayed in this park for hours, I made do with three visits in four days.
Dedicated individuals visit daily, feeding the cats en masse. Someone constructed cat condos to provide shelter and the city has rolled out a food donation program in the form of a water bottle recycling station. When someone recycles a bottle, the machine dispenses cat food. Brilliant.
While Islam dictates humane treatment of all animals, dogs come out with the short end of the stick. Viewed as impure, Islam tolerance for dogs pales in comparison to that of cats.
According to an AP article from 2010, Muslim lore tells of two famous stories involving cats. The first notes a cat thwarting a poisonous snake from the Prophet Muhammad while another mentions an instance where the Prophet Muhammad found a cat sleeping on his shawl, opting to cut the fabric around the cat rather than disturb the animal.
A popular Muslim saying dictates that “if you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”
This was originally going to be a story about the Cats of Istanbul, however, as we made our travels around Turkey, we soon learned that the Turkish affinity for cats spans across the nation.
In Izmir, I met a man named Arkan who feeds the Cats of the Cultural Park. Kind individuals left inconspicuous piles of food or bowls for water. Cats crowded the fishmongers who sliced pieces of fish and doled them to the cats impatiently awaiting the snack. Most municipalities constructed clean water stations and some even created bread drop stations where people could donate bread to be distributed to the animals.
The cats roaming the ancient city of Ephesus near Solçuk admittedly attracted my attention far more than the thousands year old constructs. Restaurant owners informed us of the friendly felines and warmed us of the ones to avoid. The beach cats of Bodrum tolerate my plucking them up and forcing them into my lap, purring as we listen to the waves of the ocean crash against the sand.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Turkey introduced Animal Protection Law No 5199 that mandated Catch, Neuter, Vaccinate, Return (CNVR), to be implemented in every city with support from NGOs and individual volunteers.
In 2014, the Animal Protection Law added an amendment making animal abuse a crime punishable by jail and increasing rates of fines for such abuse. Further, the updated act requires individuals seeking to have a pet in their home to undergo training and demonstrate suitable accommodation and care for the animal.
As idyllic as the law sounds, we heard rumblings from natives that the regulations are not largely enforced. As a result, we still regularly witnessed what we would consider inhumane treatment of animals, albeit with basic needs, like food and shelter, met.
We celebrated the small wins like seeing cats wearing collars or convincing an owner to bring his dog inside a covered area during a storm. With baby steps like the passage of animal welfare laws and the food and water distribution stations, and open displays of care and affection, my hope and dream is for this compassion to spread to all the animals of Turkey.