A heart-warming story from Donald and Renee Cameron, a newly married young couple who relocated to Istanbul, Turkey, from Sydney, Australia.
Donald works witha TV news program and Renee does volunteer work with refugees.
This is their story …
After moving to Turkey this year, we found ourselves looking after a colony of street cats. We were cat lovers back home, but we never imagined we’d end up being colony caretakers! Here in Istanbul, we live on a street corner and cats from three different streets pass through regularly. We know there are over 50 street cats nearby (half are male, half are female), but we mostly interact with about 30 regulars.
As our surname is Cameron, one of our friends affectionately nicknamed the cat colony ‘The Catmerons’ and the name has since stuck. We have given almost all the Catmerons names – it’s the only way we can talk about them without getting confused about which one we’re referring to. We’ve had fun naming them, and have a few naming ‘themes’, like outer space (Galaxy, Pluto, Stella, Venus, Jupiter), literary references/authors (Ernest Hemingway, Jules Verne, Jane Austen) and snack foods (Snickers, Milo, Pancakes, Maltesars).
The Catmerons don’t usually turn up all at the same time, though in the late afternoon we do get anywhere between 5-20 cats waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs! Usually they come and go at different times, so we often stay down on the street corner for a while to make sure everyone who wants some gets some. Cat food is unfortunately a bit expensive here, but we have found a helpful pet supplies store that gives us a relatively good price. Others in the street also feed a few of the cats, so we’re not carrying the cost alone, thankfully. It usually costs us around 100 Turkish Liras per month to feed the Catmerons one meal a day.
To keep track of how they’re all doing, we keep a spread-sheet document with details like the cats’ appearance, age, any medical issues, when they were last seen, and whether or not they have been sterilised. Sterilisation is still fairly taboo in Turkey. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that it is ‘against nature’ to sterilise a cat. Neutering a male cat is particularly controversial. Vet clinics also wait longer to sterilise cats – back home in Australia, vets would neuter/spay cats at 2 months old, but here they wait 6 months for females and 1 year for males. As a result of these factors, overpopulation is a huge problem. Animal rescuers estimate that there are over 1 million street cats in Istanbul alone. Most trap/neuter/return efforts are done by individuals like us who are just trying to do their part.
When we moved here, only two of the street cats were sterilised. We are on a mission to trap, sterilise and return as many Catmerons as we can! Unfortunately some pet owners on our street won’t neuter their male cats, so we’ve made spaying female cats our priority. So far we’ve sterilised 16 female cats and 2 male cats. We hope to sterilise the whole colony eventually. While some of the government clinics will sterilise for free, they are often inundated so waiting lists are long (you may have to wait 1-2 months before getting an appointment). When you’re trying to manage a colony, time is of the essence! Infection control is also a problem at the government clinics, so we choose to have our cats sterilised primarily at a private clinic nearby. Even with a discount for street cats, it is not a cheap exercise – 250 Turkish Liras for females and 200 Turkish Liras for males. But it’s worth it! Our very kind vet also looks after the cats during recovery, giving them antibiotics and vitamins.
We have to catch the cats ourselves, and most of them are not friendly enough to touch. At first, we were both apprehensive about how we were going to catch any of them, but since then we seem to have found a way of trapping that works for us. We put something tasty (tuna, wet food, ‘Dreamies’ treats) in the back of a cat carrier, cover the carrier with a towel (so that a cat inside can’t see us move to shut the door), and place the carrier on a step (so that a cat has no choice but to walk right in if they want the treat). Then it’s just a matter of waiting patiently…once they forget we’re there and go inside, we shut the door! Usually, Donald is the one on ‘door-closing’ duty and Renee’s job is to distract all the others. The cats often try to compete to get into the carriers, especially the ones who’ve already been to the vet and realised it’s not that bad! Lately we’ve even had to set up ‘decoy carriers’ with food in them just so the greedy sterilised cats stop getting in our way!
Our other focus right now is preparing some shelters ready for when the winter hits. We contacted a fellow cat-lover who had designed a fabulous cathouse for another colony, and her carpenter is currently working on a model for our street. It’ll be weatherproof and waterproof, and hopefully a nice place for them to sleep in colder months.
In September, our neighbour told us that a kitten had turned up on their doorstep and had been meowing for two days. We decided to take the 8-week-old kitten inside that night and work out what to do later on. Of course, the rest is history, and she has become an indoor Catmeron. Her name is Pamuk and she is a female ginger and white coloured cat.
We named her after a famous Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk. The word ‘Pamuk’ also means cotton in Turkish, and little Pamuk is lovely and soft. A little while after we took her in, we worked out which street cat was her mother. There was only one other kitten in the litter – a black and white male who is not socialised and won’t let us get very close (though we are working on befriending him, and he has become part of our regular colony!).
Pamuk is turning out to be quite the energetic terror, and thoroughly enjoys destroying random possessions of ours. Her favourite past-times include tearing tissues from the tissue box, climbing whatever surfaces she can, kicking kitten litter all over the ground, and wrestling with her favourite stuffed toy Tigger. We love her dearly, and are so blessed to have her as an indoor family member.
To follow our cat colony adventures, you can visit our Instagram account, ortakoy.kitties