Coming Home

Stray cats in Turkey are provided housing, food and medical care by the communities in which they live, with cat “condos” like the one pictured above set up in public parks.

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals. Mahatma Gandhi
By ROBERTA SLANINA O'BRIEN

With that being said, Turkey is, indeed, a great nation where 17 million inhabitants peacefully coexist with thousands of stray animals. Rarely, are they euthanized. Instead, they have the run of the land and everyone plays a part in caring for them. In the city parks, cat shelters have been erected. A street person is paid to feed the strays and maintain fresh water. Veterinarians volunteer on Saturdays to neuter them and tag an ear. The animals are happy and healthy.

Without exaggeration, stray cats are everywhere. Frequently, you find them curled up and sleeping peacefully on chairs at outdoor restaurants. On one occasion, a sweet little cat jumped on my lap while I was enjoying coffee at a café. After a few pets I put him down only to have him immediately return to my lap. Only once did I see a patron complain, and it was mild. When she did, the waiter picked up the cat and moved it. Simple as that. Of course, the cat returned seconds later to find a new vacant chair to catch some shut-eye, and everyone was happy.

You see stray dogs also, but not nearly as many as the cats. The dogs lie on entrance steps into restaurants or in front of stores, never bothering anyone. On a stroll one day, I saw three dogs lined up like sphinx, staring into a butcher shop. They were adorable and perfectly behaved, not budging an inch, even as customers carried meat out of the store. At the end of the day, the butcher throws them scraps.

Primarily, the cats are fed in the parks near the kitty condos. But, besides these designated sites, water and food bowls are seen all over Istanbul and in villages in the south. Everyone seems to pitch in. There are bowls on construction sites, under shade trees, on street corners, you name it. The animals get plenty of love, too. Lots of people pet them and talk to them as they walk to work or sip their coffees in the multitude of outdoor eating establishments.

If you want a house pet, you are welcome to claim one, no questions asked. If you take a tagged one home, you can rest assured that it is in good health, it is spayed and has its shots. Most people adopt one or two of them. If you are an animal lover like most people, it's a great system, very humane.

As my travels took me south to the Turkish Riviera near Bodrum, there were still animals everywhere. In the rural south, add horses, cows, roosters, goats and sheep. There are no electric fences. Herders mind the flocks that are allowed to roam free. Frequently, the animals are on the road or munching grass alongside the road. There is an abundance of olive trees, and the goats climb over each other to get to the olives. The sheep herders look beautiful in traditional peasant dress made of colorful print fabrics, balloon pants, shawls and scarves. It is exotic and ancient and mystical.

Although Islam teaches compassion for all creatures, cats, in particular, are revered. They are mentioned several times in the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, "If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God." Religious or not, the Turks practice tolerance and compassion in their animal policies, and undoubtedly, it has spawned a great nation of kind, caring people.