Cats own the streets in Istanbul – well, at least they co-own it with us, the Istanbulite humans. When considering how the two species co-evolved over millennia, it is evident that we are as much in their territory as they are in ours. The city is the cat’s natural habitat. In my view, tourists who have done big cat safaris in Africa or elsewhere could not choose a better city than Istanbul if they would this time like to observe the small felines “in nature.” “Foodie tours” are the latest rage in global tourism, but the next trend could very well be “cat-watching tours” for animal lovers.
Sure, some may say that stray animals are a sad phenomenon, that it is a third world problem, etc, but I do not see it as all doom and gloom. There is a great deal of animal rights awareness and activism in today’s Turkey, so mistreating an animal has become a big no-no and gets serious media attention when it does happen. As you walk through the streets of Istanbul, you frequently see citizens playing with the little loveable toxoplasmosis bags, petting them, feeding them and giving them water. Many neighborhoods, apartment blocks or even homes have “adopted” stray cats, whom they constantly care for, by leaving out water cups and daily replenishing the water, and by placing cat food next to the water containers. If your kid pets a stray animal, whether a cat or a dog, it is ok – no need to go Michael Jackson on them with your little bottle of hand sanitizer. I spent a big chunk of my childhood petting stray cats on the streets of Kadikoy (my hometown district on the Asian side of the city) with my late cousin, Burcak (R.I.P.). It is something that every child does in Turkey.
I am sure the Muslim culture has something to do with the fact that there are many more cats than dogs on Turkey’s streets, but a lot of it must be because a cat requires less food and water due to its small size, which also allows it to access smaller spaces, and hence more food. Cats also prey on smaller creatures like birds and mice, which dogs usually cannot. My other theory on why there are so many cats in the streets of Turkey is that we are now living in the age of animal rights (along with human rights, minority rights, environmental awareness, etc.), and it is just not acceptable anymore for a municipality to poison thousands of stray animals to rid the city of “pests.” I cannot prove this (and was also too lazy to research), but I have a theory that Western nations must have carried out such massacres and rid their cities’ streets of strays probably a century or more ago, as they were “fortunate” enough to be industrialized, i.e. developed, before the “liberties for all” age in which most of humankind now lives.
Whatever the background reasons, the fact is that Istanbul is a much warmer place with its well-loved, well-looked after stray cats and dogs than it would be if it were to somehow “take care of this problem.”
Cats have become such a prominent part of Istanbul’s identity that you can often find cat-themed businesses, a couple of which I have documented below:
Feeling right at home with their human counterparts, cats have established a level of cheekiness and comfort in Istanbul that I have not seen anywhere else in the world:
From Garfield to Bulgakov’s “Bigimot,” and Turkey’s own home-grown anti-hero, “Kotu Kedi Serafettin,” or “Sero,” all your favorite fictional feline characters are in Istanbul: