Somewhere in the Hagia Sophia, directly under the bombsights of the six-winged angels soaring across the east pendentives, lives a cat. I saw him when I visited this past April Fools’ Day. Unimpressed equally by the mosaics and the Arabic calligraphy spelling out God’s names on roundels, he looked interested only in napping. For this, it seemed, he’d found the perfect nook. The crowds’ polyglot cooing did nothing to rouse him.
If the visitors had spent more than a few days in-country, they might not even have noticed him. All over Turkey, stray dogs and cats form part of the landscape, like furry trees or tulip beds. Istanbul alone is home to 150,000.
Given the city’s human population of 14 million and counting, that might not sound like much. But it was enough, this past August, to convince Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water to draft a law removing stray animals from urban areas and re-settling them in “wildlife parks” on the outskirts. The Turkish public fought back, and the law was tabled. For the moment, the rule remains: “Two legs, four legs — it’s all good in the hood.”
These critters are, almost without exception, easy on the eyes. Many cats come in white and orange bright enough to have emerged straight from the washer; others are calico or delicately brindled. Far from the scrawny, jackal-ish mutts you’ll see prowling Mexican streets, stray dogs in Turkey sport the princely features of the working breeds — either thick shoulders and coats like Siberian huskies, or squared heads and stilts for legs like sivas kangals. Once I saw what looked like a full-blooded Irish setter nosing through a crowd by a Bursa bus stop.
It’s not the climate that keeps these animals looking so presentable. Their human neighbors spoil them, and indeed take great pride in doing so. Since the 1990s do-gooder groups like the Fethiye Friends of Animals Association have taken it upon themselves to neuter strays, vaccinate them against rabies, and tag their ears to distinguish them, in local eyes, from animals who might still pose a threat.
Deutsche Welle reports on a group of Istanbul women who travel the city by van — Scooby would be proud — feeding hungry dogs with leftovers donated by local restaurants and dry food they purchase themselves. But Turkish patronage to animals isn’t usually so organized. Whether from private donations or dips into trash receptacles, most of the strays I’ve seen are as fat and mellow as furry bodhisattvas.
Some are downright picky. One cat who introduced himself to me and Pertev as we lunched on the patio of Midpoint, a Beyoğlu restaurant overlooking the Golden Horn, turned up his little pink nose at the squid we offered him from her seafood risotto. He ate only octopus, and only from my hand. When he decided he’d eaten his fill, he slipped off quietly. Even the dogs are dignified beggars: after flashing the puppy-dog eyes a time or two, they trot away in search of an easier mark.
None of this is to suggest that in Turkey man and beast never tread on one another’s toes, or paws. A stray dog once bit novelist Orhan Pamuk, and Turkish animal-rights activists report that humans sometimes attack strays. But the rule, as far as my eyes can tell, is one of harmony. Dogs doze on the sidewalk; people step around them. Ahmet Senpolat, who heads Turkey’s Animal Rights Federation, claims dogs know to stop at red lights, which would tend to make them lots easier to accommodate than India’s cows.
In this arrangement, I see great sweetness, an appreciation for misfits, a willingness to tolerate chaos for the sake of some greater decency. It could be that I’m overidentifying with the animals. In Turkey, I too am a bit of a misfit, and God knows where I’d be without handouts from all sorts of people. Or maybe I’m trying to displace my guilt over the uncertain fate of Rusty, the stray cat I fed and sheltered for almost two years. Last July, when I renewed my lease, the rental agent warned me that succoring stray animals was a violation of property rules and could get me evicted. “Either adopt him and make him your own,” she said, “or stop feeding him.”
Adopting Rusty would have been a pipe dream. He’d never awarded me full custody of himself before, and there was no reason to suppose he’d do so now. Claiming him on the new lease would have involved paying a pet deposit and increased rent, neither of which I could afford. At best, eviction would have meant relocating all the way into the ghetto, instead of the halfway-gentrified neighborhood where I’d been living since grad school. Getting rid of Rusty looked like my only option.
It may have been the first time I’d been confronted with so stark a choice between my own welfare and that of someone – or, if you insist, something – I loved. Later that day, I heard Rusty meowing at my door, as he did whenever he found it locked. Ignoring him, I felt craven, as though I were throwing Anne Frank out of the attic and into the Boches’ arms.
But Rusty would not be denied. He meowed and meowed. I don’t say “mewled,” because Rusty has never struck a plaintive note in his life; he has too much character for that. After five minutes that felt more like an hour, realizing his very presence on my landing might incriminate me in the eyes of any passing maintenance worker, I poured a big handful of Friskies Seafood Sensations – his favorite – onto a paper plate, and opened the door.
“Come on, Rusty,” I said, with a false brightness better suited to a golden retriever. “Let’s take tiffin in that vacant lot, just off the property!”
Rusty followed as I speed-walked down the path. But by the time I crossed the property line into the parking lot belonging to the abandoned liquor store, he had stopped. Setting the plate on the ground, I tried cajoling him forward. “Come on, Rusty,” I said. “Everything’s still the same. The only difference is you have to eat here from now on.”
Glancing down, I saw ants swarming over the kibble. Glancing up, I saw Rusty standing still, tail and ears lowered. After a moment, he about-faced and marched off.
Rusty returned the next day, and the day after. Eventually, I caved in, feeding him inside, and even allowing him to sack out whenever the mood took him. The property management, thank God, turned the blind eye. But things were never quite the same between us after that. Even as Rusty accepted petting, even the few times when he rubbed his forehead against my face, I sensed a new reserve in him. About six weeks before I left for Turkey, just as I was starting to stress out over what to do about him, he stopped coming altogether.
My cat-people friends all swore, with hands to their hearts, that Rusty had figured out the score — that some special cat-sense had told him I was leaving, and that, rather than subject himself to a weepy farewell scene, he’d quietly made other arrangements. I hope they’re right. More than that, I hope he left bearing me no grudge. I can’t quite make myself believe it, but it’s easier than considering the alternative, that the property management called Animal Control to take Rusty and the other local strays Away.
So good on the Turkish people for codifying the status of vagabond, granting official recognition and a livelihood to animals like Rusty, who may be unsuited to pethood, but who have no wish to become prisoners of the state. He and I will probably never meet again, but if we could somehow, I’d beg his pardon for not finding the means to bring him here and set him free, into a country where he can eat like a king and sleep with the angels.