Prompted by the recent news that Polish scientists have added cats to a list of invasive alien species, the New York Times ran an enterprise story on Tuesday titled “The Outdoor Cat: Neighborhood Mascot Or Menace?”
I’m highly critical of print media stories on animals because I’ve been a journalist for almost my entire career, and I know when a reporter has done her homework and when she hasn’t. Unfortunately it looks like Maria Cramer, author of the Times story, hasn’t.
Her story identifies the stray cats of Istanbul as “ferals,” cites bunk studies — including meta-analyses based on suspect data — and misrepresents a biologist’s solutions “to adopt feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and domesticate them.”
Doubtless the biologist understands cats are domesticated, but Cramer apparently does not, and her story misrepresents the domestication process.
Individual animals can’t be domesticated. Only species can. It’s a long, agonizingly slow process that involves changes at the genetic level that occur over many generations. Domestication accounts for physical changes (dogs developing floppy ears while their wolf ancestors have rigid ears, for example) and temperamental ones. A hallmark of domestication is the adjustment to coexisting with humans.
In other words, if cats were wild animals it would take hundreds of years to fully domesticate them, and I’m sure no one’s suggesting we wait hundreds of years to solve the free-ranging cat problem.
Ferals can be “tamed,” but the majority of cats living in proximity to humans are strays, not ferals. The difference? Strays are socialized to humans and will live among us, while ferals are not and will not. Strays can be captured and adopted. In most cases ferals can’t, and the best we can hope for is that they become barn cats.
To her credit, Cramer does make efforts to balance the story and quotes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K., which places the majority of the blame squarely at the feet of humans, noting “the decline in bird populations has been caused primarily by man-made problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.”
Even our structures kill billions of birds a year. That’s the estimated toll just from the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers, and no one’s suggesting we stop building skyscrapers.
Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Araba, has been busy commissioning science fiction city designs when he’s not murdering journalists critical of his policies. The design he’s chosen for his ultra-ambitious future city, which he hopes will rival the pyramids in terms of lasting monuments to humanity’s greatness, is a 100-mile-long mirrored megacity called Neom, which is Arabic for “Dystopian Bird Hell.” (Okay, we made that up. Couldn’t resist.)
Take a look:
INTRODUCTION Depictions in a planning document show The Line as a massive micro that would be located at the Gulf of Aqaba and part of it extends into the sea
The point is, of the many factors driving bird extinction, humans are responsible for the majority of them, and if we want to save birds we have to do more than bring cats inside. Additionally, sloppy research portraying cats as the primary reason for bird extinction has resulted in cruel policies, like Australia’s effort to kill two million cats by air-dropping poisoned sausages across the country.
This blog has always taken the position that keeping cats indoors is the smart play, and it’s win-win: It protects cats from the many dangers of the outdoors (predators like coyotes and mountain lions, fights with other neighborhood cats, diseases, intentional harm at the hands of disturbed humans, getting run over by vehicles), ensures they’re not killing small animals, and placates conservationists.
At the same time, we don’t demonize people who allow their cats to roam free, and we recognize attitudes vary widely in different countries. Indeed, as the Times notes, 81 percent of pet cats are kept indoors in the US, while 74 percent of cat caretakers allow their pets to roam in the U.K.
We have readers and friends in the U.K., and we wouldn’t dream of telling them what to do, or suggest they’re bad people for letting their cats out.
Ultimately, tackling the problem depends on getting a real baseline, which Washington, D.C. did with its Cat Count. The organizers of that multi-year effort brought together cat lovers, bird lovers, conservationists and scientists to get the job done, and it’s already paying off with new insights that will help shape effective policies. To help others, they’ve created a toolkit explaining in detail how they conducted their feline census and how to implement it elsewhere.
Every community would do well — and do right by cats and birds — by following D.C.’s lead.
We’ve written quite a bit about Turkey and how it serves as a model for co-existence and fondness between humans and cats, as well as other animals.
In Turkey — and especially in ancient Istanbul, the most populous city in Europe — cats are fed, welcomed into homes and shops, and taken care of by the entire community. Pets are still a thing there, but Istanbul’s stray population is the best cared-for in the world. They have their own parks, they’re protected by the people, and they’re even given miniature shelters which famously dot the city of 15 million.
“The whimsical structures — more like miniature apartment buildings than single-kitty houses — can be found in parks, outside shops and cafes, abutting private homes, and on university campuses, providing shelter for the city’s estimated 125,000 strays,” Reason to Be Cheerful’s staff wrote.
The practice of creating shelters for strays and ferals began in 2008, when a young architect named Didem Gokgoz would pass strays in Istanbul’s Mistik Park as she walked to and from work every day.
“Every day I passed the park and saw them looking for a place to get some warmth during the winter, and I felt desperate,” Gokgoz said.
At first she began making small shelters from recyclable materials, but the compact structures weren’t always tolerated in parks and other places where people felt they were an eyesore, so after meeting with the city’s mayor, Gokgoz engaged in an experiment: She built larger, more aesthetically acceptable permanent structures in the park, including one that looks like a large catio with a sloping, house-like roof, draped in greenery and nondescript among the park’s other features.
The project was a success, and soon she found herself with requests to build more. But they aren’t just built and installed: Each cat house is run by about a dozen volunteers who keep track of the local cats, feed them, get them spayed/neutered and see to their other needs.
Almost 14 years later, cat houses have become a permanent fixture not only in Istanbul, but in other Turkish cities as well.
“It became something normal; individuals make requests for cat houses,” Gokgoz told the Turkish journalism site Transitions. “That was our main goal, and we’ve reached it. Today, everybody accepts that cats must have their own life spaces in the city.”
Seriously, what the hell is wrong with people in this country?
American cruelty to cats is even more upsetting within the context of human behavior elsewhere. In Turkey, where it’s practically a national pastime to care for felines, people build shelters for strays, welcome them into their shops with food and affection, and kitties are so trusting of humans that mother cats have on several instances brought their kittens into human hospitals and clinics for help.
Then we have ‘Merica, where apparently it’s a sport for people to sit on their front porches drinking beer and shooting stray cats with pellet guns.
Like, for instance, in Long Island this past weekend, where some stain on the human race shot a ginger tabby named Abraham and left him with a pellet lodged in his spine. Or in northern California, where a couple brought their cat to the vet because they thought he’d been attacked by a coyote, only for x-rays to show the little one had been shot several times by someone with a pellet gun. Or Augusta, South Carolina, where a cat was shot with what appears to be a bullet from a 9mm handgun. Or tiny Brookville, Pa., where a man shot his neighbor’s cat for the unthinkable crime of exploring his porch.
I have Google News alerts set up for cat-related stuff to mention here on PITB, and a lot of it is great: Compassionate rescues, feline hi-jinx, heroic cats saving kids.
But those stories are always sandwiched in between articles about people shooting cats. Constantly, incessantly, apparently without a thought about the suffering they’re causing sentient animals who have feelings just like we do and experience pain, anxiety and fear the same as us. That’s not conjecture, contrary to what some people might believe, but objective scientific fact as proven experimentally many times over in recent years.
When Americans aren’t shooting cats they’re stealing them, mutilating them and killing them, like the recent nightmare case out of Tennessee: A woman left her cat in the care of a friend while she was traveling, and the friend allowed the cat to roam outside. Another woman saw the cat wandering, didn’t like what she saw and stole the kitty, eventually giving it away to 19-year-old Deamion Robert Davis via Craigslist. Davis now faces charges of animal cruelty for allegedly binding the cat’s paws and stabbing it to death with a screw driver, according to police. Detectives said they traced the killing to Davis by lifting fingerprints from the tape Davis allegedly used to bind the cat.
So because some busybody saw a pet cat on the street and decided a random, sketchy 19-year-old who responded to a Craigslist ad would provide a better home, a woman’s cat was brutally killed.
Meanwhile hatred for cats continues to be driven by bad science, like this meta-analysis of 202 toxoplasma gondii studies by researchers who need to be reminded that correlation does not imply causation. The research team looked at data on toxoplasma infections recorded in wild animals, then with no evidence whatsoever framed their study around the suggestion that cats “may” be and “probably” are transmitting the parasite to wild animals because the rates of infection are higher in urban areas.
Never mind that humans are much more likely to be infected by eating under-cooked food, certain meats, touching contaminated soil, or using utensils that were used to cut contaminated meat and shellfish. The study ignored that fact and posited — again without evidence — that cats are the primary vector for other animals and humans.
It would be nice if people in the scientific community took responsibility for the fact that their research influences the behavior of others, and blaming cats for everything from bird extinctions to parasite infections drives people to do cruel things like cull cats or poison their food. If they’re going to publish studies drawing a link between cats and extinctions or diseases, scientists have a responsibility to make sure there’s a connection more substantial than “we think, therefore we publish.”
That will conclude this rant on human cruelty to animals.
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.
Instabul’s Hagia Sophia has been an Eastern orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, a museum and a home for cats.
Now, after a court in Turkey ruled it was illegal to convert the building into a museum, it will once again become a mosque — and the cats who call it home can stay, Turkey’s government says.
The most famous of those cats is Gli, a European shorthair with striking eyes who has become the building’s most famous resident and perhaps the most famous cat in Turkey, a country knownfor its love of cats.
Tourists come to the ancient house of worship hope to get a glimpse of Gli — or even better, a selfie with her — and she has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram. She was also famously petted by US President Barack Obama when he visited the monument in 2009.
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan, assured the public that Gli and her feline companions will stay right where they’ve always been.
“That cat has become very famous, and there are others who haven’t become that famous yet,” Kalin told Reuters. “That cat will be there, and all cats are welcome to our mosques.”
The Hagia Sophia has perhaps the most interesting history of any place of worship — it was built as a church of the Eastern rite in the Byzantine empire in 537 when the city was called Constantinople, and remained that way for almost a thousand years, with a 57-year interregnum in which it became a Catholic cathedral in the 13th century.
In 1453, the fall of Constantinople marked an end to the Roman empire and Christian rule in the city. It was renamed Istanbul, and the Hagia Sophia became a mosque. The building is unique for blending elements of Christian and Islamic architecture.
The court decision to return it to use as a mosque after it was a museum for most of the 20th century came earlier in July. Prayers are expected to resume in the building today, July 24.