Sun, fun and plenty of food for Tel Aviv's ubiquitous stray cats

By Anne Penketh

Many Tel Aviv people feed the strays. Photo / Anne Penketh
Many Tel Aviv people feed the strays. Photo / Anne Penketh

They scamper in front of you as you walk along the footpath. They skulk in the dark in the evenings. They sun themselves on top of the rubbish bins.

Many of the world's cities face a challenge from pests - in London it's foxes, in New York it's cockroaches, in Moscow it's grey crows.

In Tel Aviv it's stray cats. There are about 40,000 of them, or one cat for every 10 city residents. There are ginger ones, tabbies and black ones. Some are mangy, some are injured, and most are thin.

They wake you up at 5am with the yowling sounds of their feline mating.

But in Tel Aviv they are not necessarily unwanted.

According to the city's chief veterinarian officer, Zvi Galin, about 5000 families feed the cats every day, and even make arrangements for food to be put out during their holidays. In the apartment building where I've been staying, a row has broken out among the owners because one insists on feeding the cats with little piles of dried pellets.

It's a big headache for the city which has to deal with the consequences: because of the hot climate, the cats have kittens three or four times a year, compared with twice a year in colder countries. But most of the stray cats don't live beyond two years.

For the past two decades, Tel Aviv authorities have been neutering and spaying the feral cats free of charge to try to control their surging population.

Some 60,000 such surgeries have been performed over the last few years.

But according to Galin, the veterinary services are struggling to keep up with the animals' reproduction rate, despite doing 15 operations a day. One unspayed female cat can produce 3200 new ones in just two years.

"There are parts of Tel Aviv where we have controlled 70 per cent of the population, with very good results," Galin says. "In other parts, it's not so good." Non-profit animal welfare organisations such as the Meow Mission of Israel and Let the Animals Live are also engaged in the Trap, Neuter and Return programme.

Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality was the first in Israel to introduce the humane measure aimed at controlling the street cats, and Galin says that other cities are following suit. In the past, the cats were poisoned but poisoning is now illegal.

Cats have been in the region since the days of Ancient Egypt, when they were considered a sacred animal.

But Israel's cats began to infest the streets after more were brought in under the British mandate during the 1930s to kill off the rat population. According to Meow Mission of Israel there are now 2 million of them.

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