One of the most remarked upon features of Istanbul is not the soaring minarets, the shimmering Bosphorus, or the fresh simit. It is the cats. Istanbul has a massive endemic population of street cats–probably over 150,000–and the constant fawning attention lavished on them by tourists and visitors always touched a nerve with me. Why come from almost halfway around the world and take pictures of a commonplace domestic creature you can find almost anywhere else?
Then there are the local attitudes. It’s an ordinary sight to see locals serving out cat food, cans of tuna, or bags of cheese (cats like cheese, I have learned) to hungry felines. The government also pitches in–throughout my neighborhood there are little two-story cat-houses painted forest green and stamped with the name and symbol of the Beyoğlu Municipality. Residents make offerings of water and kibble to these shrines of cathood. Why expend these scarce personal and governmental resources on animals when there are so many needy humans who need them?
However, as with rakı and ayran, my aversion to the cats has softened over time. I came to realize one great value of street cats: as therapy animals. A couple years back, some law schools in the US began offering therapy dogs to help law students relax. In the same way, I believe pervasive street animals help city-dwellers here recover from the various urban indignities that can be inflicted on us at any moment. As one of many examples: the other day I was running, as I do, near the waterfront. A group of bullies in a white van drove by and sprayed water on me. I was very upset but I quickly found a street cat, who purred and cuddled in my lap for ten minutes until I felt better.
The other therapeutic effect of a street cat is to remind you to slow down. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, if you see an adorable kitten, then there’s just nothing else to do but stop and pet it, your schedule be damned. The other day, I met an affectionate kitten in Eyüp cemetery, near the Pierre Loti lookout. It curled up in my lap and fell asleep purring, so I sat for two hours with it while Turkish children came to my side and admired the sleepy kitten.
In fact, upon further consideration there is something appealing about the traditional Turkish model of pet ownership. Keeping a housepet, as far as I can tell, is a relatively new custom in Turkey mainly practiced by “westernized” individuals. In traditional towns, you are more likely to see an animal being “kept” by an entire apartment, a block, or a street. Members of the building or the block will all contribute to the animals’ care by putting out clean water, food, and fresh bedding at regular intervals for the dog or cat. This model still allows for the benefits of owning a pet–companionship, pest control, security, disposal of uneaten food–but it distributes the cost among the group and allows the animal itself to live freely, not imprisoned in a house all day at the whims of its owner, and without being a burden to the owner (requiring pet-sitting during trips, etc.)
Of course, it’s not a perfect model–animal rights advocates wouldn’t be happy about the rates of mortality and sickness among the street animals. But overall, Istanbul residents take care of their strays, and the government pitches in by providing vaccination/tagging for dogs. If we take this model seriously, then a street animal is really a public good, and if I am to draw personal benefit (therapeutic relief) from the shared resource (in this case, cats) then I really should contribute to its upkeep by providing water and cans of tuna fish.
So I’ve come around to the locals’ way of seeing and providing for street cats. As for the tourists’ obsession, the photos in this post show I have reluctantly come around to it. In the end, I am glad that I can depend on finding an affectionate feline when I need one.