Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Strays of Istanbul

I admit that I didn't know what to expect when I went to Turkey. I had few concrete expectations, but the one thing that struck me immediately as we travelled through the city was the remarkable amount of stray cats and dogs wandering around the streets. On Maui, strays are common enough but I'd never seen them so prevalent in a city before.

In Istanbul, strays are everywhere. Whether it was the backstreets of Fener or the crowded walkways of Sultanahmet, there were huge dogs sleeping in the grass or on the cement (usually in the middle of the walkway) or wandering around in small packs begging for food. There were whole colonies of street cats picking through garbage or waiting outside of restaurants. They must eat well as most of the strays were fat and bowls of food and fresh water were laid out for them everywhere. (A Turkish woman told me that it would be a great shame to see a starving dog right outside a thriving restaurant.)

Perhaps most amazing, though, was how tame they were. I never saw any of the huge mutts growl or even bark at anyone or anything. They were lazy things for the most part, spending the majority of their time sleeping or leisurely marking their territory. When they wanted food, they'd follow you around and stare at you innocently with their big brown eyes. When we were touring one of the Prince's Islands, three dogs followed us through our entire walking tour, bullying cats out of our path as we went. (We named the leader of the pack Ismet after Prime Minister Ismet Inonu, whose house we were viewing on the island.) But I never felt endangered by them. The dogs all have tags, which signal that they've been spayed/neutered and given all their shots by animal control. The population is, from a logistical standpoint, under control.

The cats, on the other hand, are much harder for the authorities to keep track of. Litters of tiny kittens were everywhere, living in cardboard boxes and on first-story balconies, picking through trash and falling asleep on street vendors' pashminas. (I never saw a Turkish shopkeeper kick them out though; I even saw one particularly fluffy tabby completely claim ownership over a valuable Baroque-style armchair in an antique shop.) There was a sleek, white and muscular cat that picked through the garbage at the dorm that I called Scar after the huge, pink and scabby slash across his back and the smaller one across his face. There was also a particularly friendly calico called Elif, who loved hanging out in the dorm's lobby and keeping the security guards company. (She even tried to follow students into the elevator. "Wait for me, guys!") Then there was Elif's son, Julio, who was a sweet kitten with green eyes that the guards utterly spoiled with Turkish deli meat and shredded chicken. (They even took him to the vet when he got sick.) On the way to school, I always passed a black cat who took up residence beside the door of a restaurant called "The Fish and the Kebab." I named him Balik, after the Turkish word for "fish" and he would always try to play with me when I passed by.

All these strays were definitely not at all what I would have expected to find in Istanbul, but they've made the city feel a lot more like home.

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