The Stray Cats of Istanbul

Colton Bentley

Shadowed by the tall minarets and rows of residential buildings, the stray cats of Istanbul strut about their daily lives on the streets below. Mingling with their human neighbors, napping in the sun, and conversing with fellow cats. These feline friends have a freedom to romp around the mega-city of Istanbul while still receiving some of the best benefits of domestication, such as shelter, food, and healthcare. However, further away from the main streets and trendy cafes, the lifestyle of the cats seems to quickly deteriorate with overpopulation and lack of adequate clinics. 

The number of stray cats in Istanbul is supposedly around 125,000, but their presence throughout the entire city leaves visitors feeling like there might be millions. Cats are intertwined with the long lasting culture of Istanbul, beginning with the Ottoman Empire’s control over the city. The Ottomans, like other cultures who were primarily Muslim, believed cats to be clean and holy. This honor for cats has been perpetuated and imbued into the modern culture of the busy life of a Turk in Istanbul. Citizens of all types will feed groups of cats daily, build them small shelters, and even take them to the vet on their own dime. Cats will also sit outside of cafes and restaurants to coax visitors to give them a pet, or even better, a bite of their food. The restaurant owners will even throw out extra food and leftovers so that these cats will assuredly be well fed. 

Freedom

While it might seem that these cats are more domesticated than feral, you can see in their daily lives that they ride a sweet spot in between the two. They belong to everyone, yet to no one at the same time. They are well taken care of and receive love and attention in the popular parts of town, but they can also go wherever they want and do whatever they want. In many cities, strays are poorly treated, often unhealthy, and are generally seen as a nuisance. Thankfully, in the kitty city of Istanbul, the strays (including dogs) can sometimes have a much more pleasant lifestyle. They have the chance to get the sustenance they need, but also be in control of where they go and when someone pets them. 

Government Protection

The Turkish government has also aided in the perpetuation of protection for these stray animals by passing legislation that considers animal abuse to be a misdemeanor with a fine. However, to further the protection of strays and wild animals in Turkey, there has been new legislation proposed that will hopefully be enacted during 2021. This legislation would consider strays and wild animals in Turkey to have more protection as living beings, and a violation would be considered a crime, punishable with jail time. Government legislation would encourage the attitude of love and protection for feral animals in Turkey, allowing the trademark cats of Istanbul to continue to live safely. There are ongoing efforts to increase infrastructure of care and registration of strays. This has been a struggle for the local government historically and is becoming a larger problem as the population of stray animals grows. 

Travelling to Istanbul

Travellers to Istanbul might arrive expecting the most memorable parts of their trip to be the ginormous historical churches, mosques, and fortresses. However, they will often leave with a feeling of intimacy to the city because of their interactions with the cats, and how the carefree life of a cat in Istanbul normalizes and humanizes a foreign mega-city packed with tourist attractions. These cats show the pace of the city in a new light, shifting from a hectic, touristic destination with business on every corner, to a laid-back paradise where you can slowly melt into the hustle and bustle, much like the cats around you. When going to Istanbul, it should be noted that the majority of these cats are accustomed to human interaction and often welcome it. With a simple “ps ps” a cat, or seven, may come from every direction to receive the love and attention you are so keenly prepared to give. However, tread with caution, because like many cats, they sometimes wish to be by themselves and do not want to be touched. Each cat should be assessed carefully, as a scratch or bite from a stray cat might not be on the top of your list of things to take home from your trip. You should always be respectful of the strays in Istanbul as many nationals feel a personal connection to them beyond respect for their life as living beings. 

Hard Truths

The charming life of a stray cat in Istanbul should not be fantasized, though. While many of these cats have people looking after them and are being fed, not all cats will receive this care constantly. The sheer number of cats makes it difficult for each cat to be as healthy as they should be. This often results in many of these stray cats having health conditions and injuries. The current system for collecting stray cats to spay and neuter is not widespread enough, which means that the population is constantly increasing. This results in a huge risk for strays, as there are less and less resources to care for their health as population increases. This is also true for the stray dogs. While some of these cats live a pleasant lifestyle in the heart of the city, the outskirts and poorer areas are not as hospitable. It is more difficult for the strays to live further from restaurants and wealthier individuals who can afford to constantly feed and care for them. Oftentimes, when dense populations of strays are found to be causing issues, they will be moved further out of the city where they live a life even more separated from the nourishment and love they might have previously received. Some of the cats have adapted to the busy lifestyle of Istanbul, but many have suffered due to the intense urbanization and rapid population growth. These strays need more clinics that can help with population control by registering, spaying and neutering, and receiving checkups. Local governments partnering with veterinary clinics and state authorities can increase funding and efforts to protect the strays of Istanbul. Further, they will be encouraged to do so with the persistent pressure from animal rights activists looking for ways to protect our friends on the streets.

Sources: Anadolu Agency, Daily Sabah