The Cats Of Istanbul: How A City Keeps Its Pets

The caring, devout, and irresponsible faces of “Catstanbul.”

The solution to all modern problems: loneliness, disconnection, labor, an acute sense of nothingness. They go by many names: man’s best friend and God spelled backwards. They are given gourmet food to eat, DIY shelters to sleep in, leashes to be tethered, cuddled, with handshakes and lifelong support. Pets.

There is a part of me that desperately dreams of some day having one of my own. At the same time, I am baffled by the true lengths that humans commonly go to care for an animal — often for the benefit of themselves, to fill that void of affection. Are pets — those domesticated, tamed, castrated modern beasts — really the only solution to the loneliness problem?

cats of istanbul
Cat in front of stairs. Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Istanbul offers an alternative. “Catstanbul,” people call their city with pride. The cats of Istanbul roam along a delicate line — between tame domestication and harsh wilderness. Felines claw at the window of the kebab house, lounge atop books in the bookshop, fall asleep in the lap of the devout Muslim at the local mosque. They catwalk on handrails, sidewalks, and tall ledges. Politicians of Turkey heatedly disagree on all but one thing — animal welfare — where one must essentially pledge an undying love of street animals should they hope for a seat in the parliament. Cats are the Turkish royalty.

These cats aren’t strays. Stray animals are thin, short-lived, filmed with a dark layer of dust, growling and baring their teeth at humans. The cats of Istanbul have shelters. Between the cramped, urban buildings and ever-narrowing streets, people install cat-homes with scraps of wood, refill their bowls with water and food, rummage for a spare second to pet them on their commute to work. But these cats are far from domesticated. They are mostly nameless; there exist no fence or human family from whom to escape. The streets are their own; humans are merely their convenient caretakers, not their guardians. They live a free life, rid of identity or recorded history — a life that perhaps most humans lack.

Istanbul Cat
Istanbul CaIstanbul Cat. Photo by BABAMURAT USMANOV on Unsplash

Cats, and animals, in general, have been the object of love and protection since the Ottoman Empire. In Islam, it is considered a religious duty to treat animals well. The Sultan even once initiated a program to build bird houses for sparrows on the sides of buildings, and they are so fancy they look like miniature mosques.

Yet the love that animals of Istanbul receive in large daily doses do not reflect the affection that Western cultures pay to their pet animals. In Istanbul, animals are protected by humans, yes, and they are treated with affection, but they are fundamentally respected. Living “parallel lives,” their routines to not run along their owners’ routines — they have no owner. Rather, their lives are separate from, and unbothered by, the lives of humans. The agency that the people of Istanbul willingly allow these animals, while withholding any desires for possession, can astound anyone who have been born and raised in the Western pet-keeping culture.

Stray cats
Stray cats. Photo by Anna Tsukanova on Unsplash

But freedom always comes at a price. The stray animals in Istanbul, most dominantly felines, live in such paradise-like environments compared to strays elsewhere, that they have bred to an estimated 700,000 in number. There currently exists no regulation to spay or neuter them, and the city is slowly pushing its limits. In contrast to the chubby cats in the pretty, expensive tourist neighborhoods, the less-exposed neighborhoods witness the darker side of unbounded animal laissez-faire: neglect. Failure to control the stray population results in the failure of the strays themselves. Scourged by disease and malnutrition, cat hospitals built by humans have been reaching the limits of ethical treatment.

Animal rights organizations, of course, have not kept silent. Petitions and demonstrations continuously strive to reconstruct the environment of stray animals, which ultimately, of course, is the human environment. Recently, the Turkish government introduced a law that would punish the mistreatment and neglect of animals. Only time will bring the fruits of the Turkish population’s dedication to animal welfare.

Cat on top of car
Cat on top of car. Photo by Tom PREJEANT on Unsplash

The city’s hope, in essence, is the hope of humankind. Symbolically, the cats of Istanbul can be the last saving grace of the loneliness problem, tethering humans to the earth and to God. To the secular and the unspiritual, they serve as an embodiment of freedom. Without them, we are lost.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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