It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call Istanbul a city for cats.
Felines are everywhere in this metropolis of 16 million, from the beloved — and famous — cats of the Hagia Sophia, to the shop cats lazing away their afternoons in bookstores and cafes, to neighborhood strays who enjoy the protection and care of entire communities.
Europe’s largest city is an example to the rest of the world, a vision of what life looks like when virtually everyone respects animals and pitches in to care for them.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Başak Bugay, an Istanbul native who loves cats and cares for a small pride of strays in addition to her own beloved cat.
Thanks for joining us, Başak! Can you tell us a little bit about you, what you do for a living and whether you’ve got cats of your own?
I’m a 41-year-old visual artist living and working in Istanbul. Though I was born here, like the majority of Istanbulites, I have my roots in different regions of Anatolia. It’s not really easy to survive as an artist in Turkey, but that is the path I chose.
I live with [my cat] Minnosh in our home! I am so grateful for her presence and feel blessed to be chosen by her. She is one of the kindest souls I have ever met and yet a great inspiration as a survivor. It may sound funny but somehow she reminds me of my beloved grandmother who was a very strong woman… Minnosh (Turkish for “little darling”) came into my life years ago when she was a stray. She would spend the day at my studio and would leave with me at the end of the day.
Sometimes, especially during cold winters, she would follow me to my apartment and spend the night there. Strays are usually very anxious if they don’t have access to go out and it is not easy (in my opinion also not fair) to force them to stay inside. So she was not into being a house cat until the day she had a car accident. She suffered a broken leg and tail. After several surgeries at the vet, I took her home. It’s been 3 years now and she shows no more interest in going outside. She is 11 or 12 years old, having a happy, peaceful retirement at home.
For readers who may not be aware of Istanbul and the special place cats have there, can you tell us a little bit about the city and its relationship with cats?
It has always been a cat city and it is even more today. Istanbul is a big metropolis of more than 16 million inhabitants. As someone who was born and grew up in Istanbul, there are some quarters even I’ve never visited.
The life, culture and social habits vary from neighborhood to neighborhood; whether those neighborhoods are upper or lower class, secular or conservative, strays are everywhere and people take care of them.
For the last few years almost all shops, markets, cafes and even shopping malls or hotels have started to put food cans and shelters in front of their door and some even host them inside. As a good example, a few years ago during snowy winter days, a fashion store opened its doors to stray cats and dogs for them to pass the cold nights inside. Best advertisement ever!
People in Istanbul have the common manner to take care of the animals, punish the ones who treat them badly and reward those who do good things. In my quarter you may see several cat houses and some of them are made by real estate agencies with their logo on the top! In addition, local authorities have special units for strays: They have a 24/7 emergency service, they do sterilization and bring them back to their neighborhood, they vaccinate stray dogs and replace cat/dog houses on the streets. It’s not all rainbows and flowers, but I think things are improving.
Is caring for cats an unwritten rule among the people of Istanbul? Is it embedded in the culture?
Not only the cats but also the dogs and the birds. Although it varies from region to region, it looks like this has been part of our culture for a long time. An important element of Ottoman architecture, for example, is bird shelters on building facades.
Beginning in the 20th century the city was famous for its dogs. Sultan Mahmud II, who could be considered as a dictator of his time, initiated some strict restrictions, in an attempt to westernize the country and institute so-called civilization reforms. One of his decrees was to deport a thousand stray dogs to an isolated island off Istanbul. Despite being a totalitarian dictator, Mahmud II bent to the will of the people who wanted the dogs back, so they were brought back.
People usually say that the love for cats among Turkish people finds its roots in Islam, but it cannot be the only reason, because dogs who are considered “dirty” according to religion are well protected too. Recently the municipality of Konya, which is the most conservative city of Turkey, started a new program to rehabilitate dogs and place them in new homes, with a monthly stipend for caretaking expenses.
With regard to cats, it is said that the story of cats’ domestication had started in Anatolia as the most ancient land where agriculture was developed. That could be another reason why we are a whale for the cats. However I was surprised to see the absence of cats in the east of Turkey; there were really very few even in Van which is famous for its cats. Istanbul and probably the west coast of Turkey has the majority of the cat population in the whole country.
Recently there was a viral video of a man pushing a cart through the street in Istanbul when he came upon a cat drinking from rainwater collected in a puddle in the street. The man waited patiently for the cat to finish drinking, then went on his way. Is that a common scene there? Have you seen any simple acts of kindness toward cats?
Although there are some people who aren’t so nice to cats, yes, this kind of kindness is common and I see it all the time, not only in Istanbul but almost all around in Turkey. There is this story about prophet Mohammed: he wanted to get up but a cat was sleeping on the sleeve of his cardigan. Instead of waking the cat up, he cut his sleeve off. That kind of story might have a cultural impact and influence the behavior of Muslims.
A few weeks ago Izmir (a city of 4.3 million on Turkey’s Aegean coast) had a terrible earthquake, which caused around 100 dead and 1,000 wounded. Rescue teams worked hard to save the animals as much as they did for people. They kept the rescued cats in a shelter, looked for their humans or tried to find new homes for them.
You care for three friendly-looking cats who clearly know and trust you. How’d you get to know them and earn their trust? Do they just hang out at your home?
It is my studio, actually. I have a direct entry from the street so it allows me to be closer to the strays in the neighborhood. I knew their mother and would feed her too. They were all wild, and wouldn’t let me get closer or touch them. Once their mother abandoned them, they didn’t leave the area and I kept feeding them.
Sometimes I’d leave the door open and they’d come in. That’s how they eventually understood that I was harmless. One of them vanished; probably someone in the neighborhood adopted her. One shows no sign of interest in bonding with me. He is very distant but at least doesn’t run away when I go closer. However the other starts to let me pet him and enjoys it very much. I call him Osman.
Those of us living outside Turkey have seen photos of cats casually walking wherever they please: Entering office buildings, shops, homes, government offices. Do cats have free reign in Istanbul? Does anyone ever stop them from going where they please?
Well of course there must be some places they cannot go in but if it’s a private business, such as a restaurant or a shop, the owners would fear to get on the wrong side of people if they don’t get along with the cats. So even if they don’t like it, it’s kind of a must for such a place to welcome the strays.
On second thought, yes, I think they are welcomed almost everywhere. You would see them sitting, lying, sleeping in very awkward places and nobody would disturb them. I don’t know if you have seen the video of the cat messing with the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra players and stayed on the stage during the concert.
Although people of Turkey are quite polarized in terms of almost everything, when it is about animals, they unite and show a common reaction. At least no one objects when it comes to fighting for animal rights.
To be honest I couldn’t live in a city where the cats are absent. I feel very isolated and alone when I go out of Turkey, especially in European cities.
Since there are so many street cats in Istanbul — an estimated 125,000 — what about house cats? Is it common for the people of Istanbul to keep cats as house pets? Are those cats kept indoors or do they wander the streets too?
It is more common now than the past to have pets in the house and they are mostly cats rather than dogs. The old generation also had the culture to take care of the animals, but only if they were out of the house. Whereas many of them lived in stand-alone houses with gardens, most of us now live in apartments. Unfortunately, it is not possible for a house cat to go in and out [of an apartment]. I, for example, know only one house cat who goes around in my neighborhood.
Why do you love cats?
I grew up as an only child and was quite introverted. This is probably why I have always been passionate about bonding and getting to know the animals, although my parents were old fashioned and wouldn’t allow me to adopt one.
We would spend the summer holidays on an island of Istanbul, where our house was in the heart of the forest and surrounded by feral cats. I would chase them all day long but most wouldn’t allow me to get closer. My passion for observing their behaviors made me admire them. I probably understand and know cats better than I do humans. In my opinion they are the strongest animals in terms of evolution with their ability to adapt to humanity without compromising their nature.
And finally, is there anything I didn’t ask, but should have? Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers about you, your city or the cats there?
I mostly talked about the good sides of it, but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. The biggest problem is, we still don’t have a proper animal rights law in Turkey. Animal abusers or killers exist and they don’t get sentenced for their crime but only pay a small account of money.
If the animal has an owner, it’s considered as damage to property and has a more strict penalty. This has to change immediately. Also there are some epidemics among stray cats such as Coronavirus and feline HIV, which are very hard to treat. The good thing is the vets are usually very helpful. Some do voluntary service or work for a considerable discount. Yet no animal would be left alone in case of an accident or a disease, at least not in my neighborhood.
Thanks to Başak for taking the time to answer our questions, and in a foreign language, no less. I only speak two: English and Buddinese, and the latter isn’t so much a language as it’s a set of 283 different ways to say, “Feed me!” Here in the US, we could learn a lot from the people of Istanbul, their love of cats and their community effort to care for them.