Cats live the good life. Even in the wild, they get to lay in the sun most of the day. As predators go, they’re tops, and that means they don’t have to work very hard to keep themselves fed. Equally important, cats don’t need a whole lot of water to survive. They get most of what they need from the liquid in their food. Some outdoor cats have it better than others. The strays of Istanbul have amazing cat parks to live in kitty communities. People build their homes and bring them food. It’s a purr-fect place to visit if you’re a cat lover or a cat.
A city doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide en masse that the people will take care of the stray cats (and dogs). The story of how Istanbul came to be a stray animal-friendly place is not exactly clear, but there’s plenty of evidence to show why and how such a thing happened over time. Known as Byzantion, Byzantium, and Constantinople in earlier eras, the city that is now home to a welcome horde of stray animals occupies a special place in both history and geography. As the only city in the world that occupies space on two continents (Europe and Asia), Istanbul is home to people from all over the world. As the city grew and became a hub of culture and trade between the two continents, the local farms and housing also expanded exponentially outward.
With humans come clutter and pests. Insects, rats, and mice thrive in dense urban and rural areas. They not only get into food supplies but also carry disease and other problems along with them. The term ‘pestilence’ is no accident. Humans who wish to put down roots and make a non-nomadic life for themselves have to address the issue somehow. Bringing along their domestic and semi-domesticated animals is one route to helping control a huge pest population. With their unique skills and incredible efficiency, cats are a perfect companion for the humans who live in large communities. Both people and cats figured this out thousands of years ago. As a result, cats began adopting human settlements like Istanbul and making themselves at home there.
(Probably) Not Truly Domestic
While most animals that humans co-habitate with show a distinct genetic pattern related to their breeding for desirable traits, cats are a little different. Their genetics show more of a voluntary friendship that came with assuming responsibility for our pest problems, which became their ready food source. The mutual interactions were beneficial to both species. So we began to settle down together. Cats provided early forms of pest control, which helped humans have abundant food and less disease. Cats, in turn, got easy prey, shelter from the elements in our structures, and often enough a human or two who brought them treats like milk or bowls of water.
There’s no need to feel bad for cats, especially those coveted and beloved strays of Istanbul. They apparently chose to settle human-inhabited areas instead of remaining wild animals because it was easy work, and the pay was excellent. Bonuses like being petted and veterinary services came later. At first, it was just mutual usefulness. Over time both species have evolved, and so has our relationship. This is never more obvious than in places like Istanbul, where the semi-domestic strays run the streets as a welcome sight and a part of the urban landscape.
Istanbul is a mostly Islamic city. We’re not sure who said it first, but there is a widely spoken saying that “If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” Needless to say, the cats of Istanbul and many of the humans around them share a mutual respect, and these strays aren’t hunted down and put in shelters as they are in the western world. Moreover, cats are considered ‘ritually clean’ animals. They are treated as guardians.
Though Americans understanding of the Islamic faith is deeply colored by the experiences we’ve had as a culture that came with a few rogue Muslim extremists, the Islamic faith as a whole teaches a good deal to its adherents about tolerance. In Istanbul that tolerance has turned to welcome for the animals who live in the city. There are many stories of the prophet Mohammed in the Islamic faith. One notable tale involves a cat. Apparently, the creature curled up on his sleeve for a nap, and Mohammed chose to cut off his sleeve and leave it for the cat to rest on rather than disturb the sleeping kitty. In another tale, a special cat saved him from a snake. Cats are respected though not exactly worshiped or revered.
The Cat Parks of Istanbul
Merely tolerating and ignoring strays is one thing. However, Istanbul has evolved past that to show care and even love to the many animals who live their lives in the city. The strays are well treated, and most are reasonably friendly or downright expectant of people when it comes to getting some attention and extra petting. Like the orange cat in this video, which follows a tourist who came to enjoy one of the many cat parks.
People build housing for the strays in the cat parks. Sometimes locals bring blankets and bedding. They also bring food and water to help out the cats. There are local organizations that help with spay and neuter services and vaccinations for their feline neighbors. Estimates for the cat population range from a hundred thousand to over a million, but any way you count it, they’re everywhere, and the cats go where they please. You won’t just find them in parks, but on rooftops and walls, wandering streets and even letting themselves in and out of homes and businesses as they please. The lucky stray cats of Istanbul are a ubiquitous part of life in this geographically and culturally unique metropolis.
Whether you’re a fan of all furry friends or specifically a cat lover, Istanbul and it’s adorable cat parks should be on your shortlist for places to see on your next vacation. You can get all the feline cuddles and love you could ever need. Plus, no worries or guilt about leaving these lucky kitties to their fate when you head home. Bring a bag of treats or some catnip as an offering and enjoy your visit, the cats certainly will.