Why are there so many cats in Istanbul?
July 3, 2008 1:53 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are honeymooning in Istanbul. Why are there so many (apparently) stray cats wandering the city?
posted by SilentSalamander to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm from Sarajevo, we had loads of stray cats there, too.

Cats have a special place in Islam. Mohammed was a big cat lover, as were several other important Muslim religious figures. So teachings about cats are plentiful in Islam, and they're nearly always about the goodness of cats. One story is how Mohammed so loved his cat that, when the cat fell asleep on his sleeve, Mohammed cut off the sleeve rather than to bother his little friend. A cat supposedly saved Mohammed at some point, too. But I don't remember that story. There are stories of people who died and went to hell specifically because of their poor treatment of cats. And it's especially good luck if you spot a cat sleeping on the grave of a loved one. One of the first things I remember being lovingly taught was that it was a big, big, big sin to hit a cat.

There are generally a lot of cats in Islamic society, but I've found that they're really pervasive in still-Muslim cities of the former Ottoman Empire, like Istanbul and Sarajevo.

In Sarajevo, during the war, many people had to let their cats go free as there was no food for any of us. At least outdoors, the cats had a chance to find a mice or bird or something. And when there was a little scrap of something, we'd feed the strays. This was seen as a very good deed. So they (or their offspring) are all still around today. But even before the war, there were lots of cats, just like in Istanbul. Basically, no one would harm a cat, so they're just allowed to run free. Spaying and neutering doesn't really happen - especially to strays. So while many of these cats must have short life spans, they only die by accident, not by deliberate misdeed. They keep the streets free of rats and mice and are admired for that. This, combined with their special place in society, means you see a lot of them on the street.

I don't want to make it sound like religion plays that big a role in any part of life in Turkey or Bosnia - it doesn't really. But the "cat teachings" have more or less jumped out of religious teaching and straight into folklore, in a sort of superstitious way.

Enjoy your honeymoon, and please stop and give some Turkish cats a bit of kebab or what have you . . . by my upbringing it'll bring you luck. And don't be surprised if some people around you give you a special smile.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:16 AM on July 3, 2008 [61 favorites]

Are they all domesticated or domestic cats gone feral? Two wildcat species (barely distinguishable from domesticated), felis sylvestris sylvestris and felis sylvestris caucasica roam in Turkey.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:56 AM on July 3, 2008

Why are there so many (apparently) stray cats wandering the city?

Remember your Malthus: they couldn't exist without food.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:10 AM on July 3, 2008

Here in Armenia, we have a lot of stray cats and dogs too. Maybe it was a Muslim neighborhood thing, but also expanded because during the war people had to let their pets go. The cops shoot the stray dogs regularly, which is a good thing to decrease competition and therefore make the survivors less likely to bite you.

All strays here are way smarter than American dogs and cats I know. Perhaps this is because they are survivors and the descendants of survivors.

People feel stray kitties bits of food, but I don't see them feeding stray dogs. Like Dee said, it is considered lucky and will bring about some smiles.

My collection of street cat photos
posted by k8t at 3:40 AM on July 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is purely anecdotal, but I think you'll find that's the case in most major cities. I live in the Bronx, and there are a lot of feral cats up here. Last summer my wife and I stumbled across a group of about two dozen living in Riverdale Park and we've seen quite a few in Van Cortland Park. There are even at least 3 or 4 that live in the stalled construction site a couple doors down from my apartment building, and some of our neighbors periodically leave dry cat food out for them so I'd imagine the population will just keep growing.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:44 AM on July 3, 2008

PS, if you like kittehs and you like Turkey/the region, check out the kewlest kitteh eva. Different colored eyes AND they can swim!
posted by k8t at 3:48 AM on July 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's my stand out memory of Istanbul cats jumping onto your lap when you're trying to eat!
We asked about it because there was just.so.many and we were told there was no organised effort to control them (ie impound/sterilise/cull them), like there are in most major cities, so they just keep breeding. Not sure if it's anything to do with religion, or just different priorities.
posted by indienial at 3:49 AM on July 3, 2008

Ok, after indienial's post, they're definitely not that common here in the Bronx...
posted by JaredSeth at 4:01 AM on July 3, 2008

Good question, and wow, SS, we should've had a meetup -- I'm leavıng İstanbul ın a few hours!

Defınıtely confirming, there's a lot of cats about. Down in Cappadocia I also saw the occasıonal cat, but usually beıng chased by a dog. But no stray dogs ın İstanbul. Glad none of the cats jumped into my lap (though I would give them a nibble now and then) 'cause they're mostly none to clean.
posted by Rash at 4:03 AM on July 3, 2008

I have also noticed a lot of stray cats in various parts of Greece and Italy so the tradition of looking after them may nor just be a Muslim thing. My guess is that any city which does not actively pursue a policy of neutering and capture will tend to get quite a lot of strays. However if you have a "stray cat friendly" city that also happens to be somewhere warm then the cats will tend to be more obvious because they will congregate and beg around outdoor restaurants and cafes.
posted by rongorongo at 4:15 AM on July 3, 2008

An interesting street cat city is Rome. There are so many of them, especially in the ruins. Most are ferral. There are old ladies, Gattaria (sp?) who keep a lot of them (crazy cat ladies?). There is an organization that spays/neuters them and will let you adopt a kitten if you like. If you're ever in Rome, it is a fun place to visit.

My photos of street cats in Rome
posted by k8t at 5:01 AM on July 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agreeing that the cat populations seem highest in what I'd call Southeast Europe. But they are in Italy, Greece, Croatia etc... I believe Rome is supposed to have one of the highest feral cat populations in the world. This snippet, regarding Rome, might give some insight:

There are estimated to be 300,000 feral cats in Rome living in over 2000 colonies. You might think that the city fathers would be alarmed by these numbers, but Rome's city council has recently come out in favor of the cat's existence in Rome by citing their ancient heritage: "There is a deep-rooted affection for these cats who have an ancient bond with the city." The city council even went so far as to protect the cats, in 2001 naming cats living in the Coliseum, the Forum and Torre Argentina a part of the city's "bio-heritage.

Not so much in SW Europe (i.e. Spain, Portugal) though and not at all in Northern Europe. I'm assuming thats because SW Europe for some reason has population control programs and North Europe is too cold to support them year-round.
posted by vacapinta at 5:17 AM on July 3, 2008

I noticed this in Tel Aviv and (especially) Jerusalem when I visited. To give people a sense of just how many cats we're talking about here - they're nearly as pervasive as squirrels are in American cities.
posted by dmd at 6:14 AM on July 3, 2008

k8t writes "All strays here are way smarter than American dogs and cats I know. Perhaps this is because they are survivors and the descendants of survivors."

Yes. Domesticated animals are typically less intelligent that wild-type conspecifics, because human breeders are usually breeding for traits other than intelligence (more meat, more strength, more loyalty).

(Jared Diamond implies the same when he surmises that New Guinea natives, raised until recently without Western conveniences, are likely on-average smarter than Westerners.)
posted by orthogonality at 6:19 AM on July 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's a Middle East thing; I wasn't aware that street cats are pervasive in Sarajevo as well, but it keeps with the idea that stray cats are found in former Ottoman cities. There are stray cat infestations from Cairo all the way up to Damascus, and (evidently) in Istanbul too.
posted by awenner at 7:54 AM on July 3, 2008

This happens in western Europe, too. There are lots of cats out and about in France, who don't live with anyone.
posted by Lleyam at 10:19 AM on July 3, 2008

Cats in the Sun (of the Greek Islands).
posted by ericb at 12:06 PM on July 3, 2008

There were a ton of cats in the old cities of the Greek Isles when I was there - something I noted in a particularly memorable fashion in Rhodes.

My brother and I had rented a motorscooter so that we could get around easily - we spent the day buzzing around the winding streets of the old city, shooting out the coastline to see the old war bunkers abandoned on the beach heads there, riding up to the acropolis for pictures of the sunset, etc..

As evening closed, we were due to be back on our ship and running a little late coming back down through the old city, driving perhaps a wee bit too fast on the old bumpy stone. That's when I notice a cop swerve into place about a block behind us.

"Don't look now but there's a cop behind us," I tell my younger brother who's riding behind me as I let off the accelerator but don't break. Thing was, I didn't technically have a motorcycle license, I had convinced the guy at the rental shop that in the US "drivers license" covered motorcycles as well.

Just as he's getting close to us, I notice something in the corner of my field of vision - 2 cats having, what else, a cat-fight on the edge of an overhang directly above us that we're just about to pass undAND HOLY CRAP THERE'S A SCREAMING CAT FALLING O...

That's when cat lands squarely between my brother and I, looks up at my stunned brother for a second, and then twists and jumps off of the bike. We never lost forward momentum or balance.

My brother is still HOLY CRAP-ing when the cop pulls up next to us, smiles, says "Watch out for the cats," and zips off ahead of us.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:30 PM on July 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

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