It’s 5 p.m. and it’s feeding time for these Istanbul street cats.
“I’ve [fed them] for 10 years,” 65-year-old Veysel says. The sweet old man with kind blue eyes can’t stand to see them hungry, so he comes twice a day to make sure they eat well. He brings a giant bag of dried kibbles, and several cans of wet food. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this place, nicknamed “Cat Park."
The park is an attraction in this high-end Istanbul neighborhood. Cool looking guys with hipster beards sit casually as cats curl up on their laps. Kids run around trying to pet every kitten they can find. I often come by for my own kitten therapy. One of my favorite felines rubs up against my legs; her meow sounds more like a quack.
The park can be heaven for cat lovers. But not everyone agrees.
“There are people that help the cats and that's great,” Veysel explains. But there are plenty of cruel people too. “This one woman was in the park yesterday and she was so terrible. I told her go away. I was so mad I cursed at her."
Hilary Sable, a British woman who’s been taking care of cats in her Istanbul neighborhood for the past five years, has become a sort of fixture for the human and feline residents where she lives. As she walks the streets, people stop her for advice and cats greet her with purrs and meows. She feeds a few dozen cats each day, and takes sick ones to the vet. She knows when an unfamiliar animal has come to the neighborhood, or when a cat goes missing.
She says it’s really tough to see Istanbul portrayed as a “cat safe haven” in the media when she’s part of a network that takes care of the animals.
“The people who come here come to the areas where the foreigners live or the tourist areas and they do not see the 90 percent of Istanbul where the cats are dying in the street from neglect, illness, being kicked by the local kids,” she says, frustrated.
Istanbul’s furry residents have been around for centuries. Old depictions of the city often include at least one cat. They’ve been loved by Ottoman sultans and even the Prophet Mohammad.
“Prophet Mohammad was on his way to war, and on his way there was a cat laying down in the middle of the road, nursing her kittens,” Aynur, an Istanbul resident visiting Cat Park, proudly explains. “The prophet diverted his entire army so he wouldn’t disrupt them.”
But that love for street animals isn’t really the norm in Istanbul. People take more kindly to the cats than the street dogs, but the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of cats in the city — in dumpsters and garbage cans, spreading disease and getting hurt on Istanbul’s crowded streets. And there are few people like Veysel, Aynur and Hilary to take care of them.
While there are some government services, there aren’t many, so this so-called “haven for cats” is often more of a hell — for the felines and the people who care about them.