I am not a cat person. Or, at least, I have spent most of my life professing not to be a cat person.
This is, in part, because I’m basically deathly allergic to cats. Within minutes of coming in contact with them my eyes start itching, I sneeze uncontrollably, and, most troubling of all, it becomes difficult to breathe. As a result, I have become pretty good at avoiding cats over the years.
However, Turkey is testing my cat avoidance resolve because, well, you just can’t avoid them. Around every corner in Istanbul you are likely to run into a cat – or several cats. Most are wild – although I hesitate to say “feral” since they are fed and cared for by pretty much everyone – and no one in particular.
There are wild dogs too – though they are HUGE and intimidating, and don’t lend themselves to “petting” and fawning over. Some of them seem friendly enough, and most just ignore me as I walk past them, but I’ve had a couple of encounters where I’ve been barked at by a street dog, and, on one occasion, I unexpectedly came face to face with an entire pack (ok, well, maybe 5 dogs…) coming out of some brush as I walked up a road. They left me alone, but I’m not going to lie when I say it took a lot of effort not to high-tail it in the opposite direction.
My observation is that the cats are better treated than the dogs, but overall they are all treated well given that they don’t belong to anyone. Mahatma Ghandi once allegedly said that the “greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and if that is true, then Turkey can be judged pretty highly. All along the streets – both main thoroughfares and alleyways – you see bowls filled with fresh water and small piles of food. Feeding the animals from your table at a restaurant does not seem to be frowned upon and old ladies in the street always look at me fondly when I speak to the cats as I’m walking to and from work.
What’s amazing is that it is not just food and water that are provided. There are cat beds and dog houses in front of the grocery store and in nooks and crannies throughout the city. Cats lounge on the chairs set outside for guests at restaurants – and even those that are for sale outside of our local hardware store. Rather than shoo them away, people stop and pet them and offer them treats. And on our taxi rides around the city I’ve noticed that there is usually at least one ginormous dog sleeping peacefully in the middle of every sidewalk (or sometimes the middle of the street). We’ve also been told that vets do not charge to spay/neuter or take care of injured street cats, which is pretty remarkable to me.
The legends of why cats rule Istanbul (cause basically they do) are varied. One claims that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, would return as a cat. However, since no one knows which cat, they must all taken care of and well treated. Another story holds that Atatürk said “his successor would be bitten on the ankle by an odd-eyed white cat,” so everyone is on the lookout for a crazy looking white cat.
In Islamic culture cats are also highly regarded and are the only animal allowed to enter the Great Mosque of Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad, in particular, was said to be very fond of cats and, by one account, opted to cut off one of his sleeves so he could rise from his prayers, rather than disturb a cat that had fallen asleep on his robe while he was praying. Another story claims that Muhammad was saved from a snake attack by cat, and that, as a reward, he blessed cats with the ability to always land on their feet. Then again, it may just be that cats keep to themselves and kill rats and mice – a pretty decent reason to keep them around a city with 15 million people.
Even our very private, very enclosed apartment complex can’t avoid Istanbul’s “kedi” life.
When we first arrived there were three kittens (the mother was around, but very good at hiding when anyone came to call) that the children on the complex basically adopted. The kittens were all given names (Ash, Scotch and Bandit) and there were daily excursions to visit them. One of the families took it upon themselves to take all three for shots and to get them bathed/treated for fleas.
As is my habit, I avoided them as much as possible for several weeks. Then one day I met a friend of mine at the “adults only” pool (which sounds much more risqué than it is – it’s really just the quiet pool without screaming children) and one of them, Ash, came and sat in my lap.
I didn’t realize until I sat there, with this sweet, soft, purring kitten in my lap how much I missed the companionship of an animal. The quiet, uncomplicated, unconditional love – even just for that moment – that they give.
This is the first time, in almost my entire life, that I’ve been without an animal. It’s hard to believe but we’re coming up on a year since Miller died, and we’ve vowed not to get a new dog until we finish our tour here. Thinking about that empty place in our lives, in that moment, sitting in the sunshine with that happy kitten in my lap, I wanted to scoop him up and take him back to our apartment and figure out a way to make that feeling last – without the accompanying wheezing and sneezing.
And then, two days later, as I was continuing to work through the logistics of how I could convince B, and not die in the process, the kittens were gone. Their carry case, their bowls and them – gone.
I asked the guard at the gate what happened to them and he told me that some people in the complex don’t like the cats, so they had them taken to a local park. Given that this is Turkey and there a 15 million (minus apparently some scrooge in my apartment complex) cat loving inhabitants in Istanbul I truly believe that the kittens really are in a park as opposed to this being the Turkish equivalent of “we sent the dog to live on a nice farm…” But I have been unexpectedly sad about their departure.
On my many walks around the neighborhood in the last couple of weeks, I’ve insisted on popping into all the local parks and gardens to see if I could find the kittens and confirm they are ok, but so far I haven’t had any luck. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying their cuddles and treating them as Mohammed would have treated them. In the meantime, we found some other cute kittens to love on our adventures this weekend. Only time will tell whether my allergies (and B) win out, or whether we’ll have a kedi in tow when we leave Istanbul in 2023.
By the way, if you want to learn more about the cats – and dogs – of Istanbul – check out these films.