Problem in cat heaven? – Campus hours

Istanbul: a city of mosques, churches, cobblestone roads, steep hills and narrow streets, ferry crossings and seagulls, a bridge between new and old, ancient and modern. Sitting atop the throne of this preserved realm is the street cat. Part spotted and striped, part black and white, lean and positively chubby, the mighty street cat’s beauty is subtle, consistent, and reassuringly distinct. No two cats look like another, but together they create the vast ecosystem of fuzzy little troublemakers intertwined in the city’s landscape – an irreplaceable gem, a pleasant nuisance.

Due to the slippery nature of government regulations, one cannot really be sure of the population of street animals in the city – estimates range from 400,000 to 900,000. The majority of these street animals are cats, which is not at all surprising to anyone who has set foot in Istanbul for as little as a few hours. Cats are, without exaggeration, everywhere. At the bazaar, rested on the traditional carpets in a majestic spectacle of royalty; circling the terraces of quaint restaurants, playing their charm in exchange for leftover meals from tourists; huddled in store shelves with the beloved store owner stroking their fur; sleeping on metro turnstiles and public bus seats; and sometimes, with a stroke of luck, you’ll find one purring in your lap.

Suffice it to say, when I first moved to Turkey from the United States, I couldn’t help but stare at this inconceivable phenomenon. How can they occupy this whole city with such freedom and confidence, as if Istanbul belonged to them and we humans were only guests? Additionally, I found great fascination in how the townspeople coexisted with these furry friends. Feeding and sheltering these animals is not only banal, it is an undisputed duty. Cats and dogs live among us and are citizens of the city just as much as we are. Therefore, the fluffy ottoman blanket you’re trying to sell is also the ginger kitten’s birth bed. The butcher offers meat, the café owner offers slices of cheese and chicken, and the well-meaning old lady offers bread soaked in milk.

The municipality also participates in the care of these street animals. The “collect, vaccinate, feed, release” policy is implemented in the hope of not only ensuring good health for the animals, but also regulating their ever-growing population, although the success of this method is questionable, as street animals are reproducing as quickly as ever . VetBus is a free ambulance service that, when called, picks up street animals in need and transports them to veterinary clinics in Istanbul. Other times, animals in need of care will be kept in shelters.

In comparison, here in the United States, pets are privately owned and given a much more personal level of care. Rarely are our mercy and compassion extended so often to the thin, ragged cat we see stalking away from us in the dark. Animals on the street, near sewers, hidden behind bushes or trees – these creatures escape our white picket fences. If one wishes to provide care or shelter, they most often adopt the animal and make it part of their home, their family.

The ordinary Turkish citizen prioritizes the “freedom” of the street animal over its potential to receive more tightly regulated care as an owner. It’s ironic, given that it’s usually Americans who preach individual freedom, while Turks value close family ties and nagging, almost suffocating care. Here the roles seem to change as the Turks take on a collective and general responsibility to provide general food and shelter for the beloved and respected street animal without “disturbing its freedom by confining it within four walls”. As a result, animals are loved by many but only have relatively satisfactory means of subsistence which may be insufficient for a high quality of life. During this time, the American must form a closer personal bond with the animal before he can fully offer his time, care, and compassion. In return, the animal is pampered in the warmth and safety of home – not quite a member of the family but not quite a form of property.

The problem with Istanbul’s street animals is that there are far too many of them, and the by-products of street life such as disease and malnutrition are difficult to prevent on a large scale by the municipality. However, a Turk would find slaughtering an animal that cannot be cared for absolutely barbaric (and I agree)! The American, on the other hand, might argue that it’s bad treatment to keep an unfortunate animal alive, especially with raw shelter resources. But what determines an animal’s happiness? I believe the divide falls close to this question. For the Turks, a purring cat having its belly rubbed on the park bench is happy, regardless of the quality of its food or the potential mites in its fur. For the American, a cat is happy with Hill’s Science Diet in his stainless steel food bowl, and a four-story scratching post to mimic the naturally sought-after outdoor environment he can’t have. But hey, this cat will live 15 years on average. An Istanbul cat leads a hectic life that can end with just one momentarily reckless handler.