In an animal shelter in the Besiktas district, cats are free to roam in an open room.

With the help of outdoor cat houses and volunteer labor, Istanbul seeks to improve the lives of its thousands of stray cats.

In the winter of 2008, Didem Gokgoz decided to do something for the stray cats of central Istanbul’s Mistik Park.

“It was on my way from home to the office,” Gokgoz recalls. “Every day I passed the park and saw them looking for a place to get some warmth during the winter, and I felt desperate.”

The interior architect, 29 at the time, came up with the idea of building small containers in which cats could shelter from the cold and rain. At first people scoffed at the idea, with comments such as “Dog houses are for dogs,” she says. Today, cat houses can be found all over Istanbul – in parks, outside hotels and shops, and on school campuses. Individuals, companies, and local authorities foot the bill, and not only here but in other Turkish cities as well. 

It was not easy at the beginning, Gokgoz says. At first, she made portable houses from plastic and placed them in Mistik Park. But the official who is responsible for Nisantasi, a neighborhood in Istanbul’s Sisli municipality (district), had them tossed out. The official, whose office overlooks the one-square-block park, cited visual pollution and smell as the reasons. A meeting failed to resolve the impasse. Gradually, as Gokgoz became more familiar with locals who fed cats in the park, she developed the idea of making higher-end, wooden cat houses. They can be attached to the ground by iron chains to stay affixed permanently. She and eight other women arranged a meeting with municipality officials to discuss it.

The appointment was made for a Saturday morning. Only three people showed up.

“There were three of us in the pouring rain: Me, my lawyer friend, and Mr. Mustafa Sarigul [then the Sisli mayor],” Gokgoz recalls. “We showed him our designs, explained how it would work and everything. Mr. Sarigul listened carefully and said, “OK, do it and let’s see; if we think it works, we will support it.”

A City of Cats

Unlike metropolises where stray cats and dogs are rare, Istanbul is a city symbolized by its cats. A Google search on “cat” and “Istanbul” brings up dozens of videos, articles, and tourist tips. Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary Kedi (Cat) was a hit with international audiences and sparked interest in the city’s enormous stray cat population, which the Istanbul Metropolitan Authority estimated at 125,000.

The growing acceptance of cat houses in Istanbul and other Turkish cities – and more humane treatment of stray animals generally – depends on collaboration between local authorities and committed individuals. Although there were previous efforts, installation of officially supported cat houses has encouraged volunteers to cooperate further with authorities in areas such as sterilization of strays (made a responsibility of municipalities by a 2004 law) and feeding of stray animals.

After getting Sarigul’s word that the cat houses would not be destroyed, Gokgoz and her friends installed the first two in Mistik Park, inviting the mayor to the event.

Thematic fencing decorates the entrance to housing for stray cats in central Istanbul’s Mistik Park. The gate, accessible by volunteers, has an opening for the feline residents.

“People were confused about the cats,” she says. “The head [official] responsible for Nisantasi was looking at us from his balcony, displeased, but he couldn’t do anything because the mayor was there.”

TV news stations covered the event, and the municipality then contacted Gokgoz for more cat houses. Soon afterward, the neighboring Besiktas district started installing wooden cat houses as well. It was a turning point in Gokgoz’s life. Flooded with requests, she founded Podo, a company that makes whimsical cat houses and other products for pets and stray animals.

The idea spread to other municipalities, such as Kadikoy, followed by cities such as Alanya, Izmir, and Gaziantep. Gokgoz was commissioned to build cat houses for the Sabanci and Bogazici universities, cafes, cosmetic shops, and even the Industrial Development Bank of Turkey.

“It became something normal; individuals make requests for cat houses,” she says. “That was our main goal, and we’ve reached it. Today, everybody accepts that cats must have their own life spaces in the city.”

These days, Gokgoz builds eco-friendly house furniture in her atelier while continuing to design products for cats and building wooden cat houses on demand. Demand for the houses is strong, but as Gokgoz stresses, local authorities need volunteers to help run them.

The first cat houses installed in Mistik Park are still there; now they are covered with a roof and surrounded by a wire fence with a locked, human-sized door and a cat-sized entrance. A group of 12 volunteers called Pati (Paw) holds the key.

Pati volunteers take turns cleaning the cat houses and checking for new arrivals. They take on the responsibility of feeding the cats, get them spayed and neutered, and monitor their health, in cooperation with the Sisli municipality. They know every cat in the park and can thus easily identify newcomers – important to help prevent the spread of diseases.

The women post information on their WhatsApp group about cats that need to be spayed/neutered, missing cats, and cats available for adoption. The municipality helps in cases of urgent intervention and sterilization, but when it comes to regular medical treatment for cats (and dogs), the volunteers raise money among themselves and go to private veterinarians. Although they try to find support via social media, they say that they mostly cover the expenses from their personal budgets, which usually is the case among animal volunteers. One veterinarian next to the park does offer them discounts.

Combating Abandonment

Abandoned cats are their major concern; infections can spread rapidly among cats with the sharing of water and food bowls. Collaboration is important to combat the problem of people simply abandoning animals in parks with cat houses.

According to Ege Sakin, the public relations officer for Sisli municipality’s animal care department, if the public is not well-educated on certain issues, the negative aspects of providing cat houses can outweigh the benefits.

Parks have turned into “places of abandonment,” she says, noting the situation in Sanat Park (Arts Park), a bigger park about a kilometer from Mistik.

“We put the cat houses in Sanat Park,” she says. “Then it appeared in the newspapers. And the next day, people brought cats from all around Istanbul, even from outside Istanbul. They came with sacks with dozens of cats, saying they will be fine in the park. … Sick cats, blind, and disabled cats that were thrown out of the house ended up in the park, and the local cats who had lived there for years in peace died.”

Cat houses in Sanat Park. The structures also are installed outside shops and businesses, and even on university campuses.

The positive benefits of cat houses are largely due to the efforts of volunteers, Sakin says. A volunteer animal protector “is the hand, the ear of the street. No matter how many teams we [local authorities] send to the streets, it’s not possible for us to follow cats the way that volunteers can by looking out their door. Collaboration is vital.”

Istanbul’s metropolitan authority is legally responsible for sterilizing strays, but this was not the case before 2004. Until the Animal Protection Law came into force, the metropolitan authority had the right to kill stray animals (which was applied on dogs rather than cats). Today the policy is one of decreasing the population of stray animals humanely. This means not only sterilizing but can also involve the provision of medical care and feeding.

Animal right defenders in Turkey support sterilization because the streets are dangerous for the animals. There are not enough private shelters; and municipalities do not shelter stray cats. So-called rehabilitation centers, which house the animals while they receive medical care, are an exception.

Not all 39 municipalities in Istanbul, a city of 15 million, have rehabilitation centers and vehicles to pick up sick and needy animals. At rehabilitation centers, cats get temporary care, but since capacity is limited, these institutions work on a principle of “treat and release.” When the treatment is done, the cat is left where it came from, and the volunteer who had brought the animal to the center is informed.

The Sisli municipality operates one vehicle that distributes food for strays in the neighborhood; another gives on-site care to animals that cannot be transported to the rehabilitation center; a third is used to transport animals to the center for sterilization.

Sisli also operates a call center. Residents submit requests for services such as sterilization; emergency intervention; and support for orphaned kittens. All requests get replies within 48 hours, Sakin says.

Vital Volunteers

Unlike Sisli, neighboring Besiktas directly supports cat shelters. What began as a pilot project in 2012 is still running. For the past six months, the municipality also has operated a permanent shelter for banned dog breeds such as pit bulls and disabled cats that cannot live outdoors.

Animal shelters are commonly perceived in a negative light in Turkey as a result of social media coverage showing poor hygiene and unhealthy animals confined within four walls. However, according to Tolga Akyildiz, Besiktas municipality’s veterinary affairs manager, conditions here are different: The animals are not in cages, instead moving about freely in a 45 square-meter (484 square-foot) room. A team of 40-some volunteers helps care for them daily, working in shifts.

A kitten receives medical care in an animal rehabilitation center in the Sisli district. Sick or injured stray animals are treated and then released again.

Three volunteers show me around. They met at a session on caring for stray animals given by the municipality. Like the Pati group in Nisantasi, they formed a WhatsApp group to keep one another informed about the cats in their neighborhood and continue their activities in coordination with local authorities during regular meetings.

The volunteers also work on the streets, feeding cats and identifying animals to be sterilized. Each volunteer visits a number of feeding points twice a day, feeding and looking after 35 to 40 cats on average. They say almost all cats in the neighborhood have now been spayed or neutered.

Ballot Boxes, Repurposed

In Beylikduzu, a municipality on Istanbul’s west side, volunteer work is essential to maintain its cat houses. In 2018 and 2019, the municipality set out 520 houses, and since then responsibility for them has rested with local volunteers.

Beylikduzu also hosts a permanent shelter for dogs and cats. The municipality helps individual volunteers feed strays, in addition to financing its own feeding program.

“We do the feeding three days a week,” says Ertugrul Tuncer, veterinary department manager. “We choose places where there are no buildings, no traffic, and no people.” Eighty percent of the neighborhood’s stray cats and dogs live in these out-of-the-way places, Tuncel adds.

Beylikduzu’s cat houses are made from recycled wood and other materials donated by shipping companies and furniture makers. Building on the efforts of Didem Gokgoz, local authorities have tended to produce simpler houses – perhaps less attractive but cheaper – than the Sisli original.

“We made cat houses from ballot boxes after previous elections,” Tuncer says. The municipality preferred to distribute houses individually rather than putting groups of them in parks, he explains.

“When you build cat houses, it triggers abandonments,” he says. “And because food is constantly left in cat houses, epidemics spread there. Every time you go to a park you see a dead cat or two. Then people start complaining. … Cats are not like dogs; they do not live in groups. So we distribute [houses] by ones and twos. That way a mother cat can easily get in with her kittens.”

For those who can no longer keep their pets and want to give them up, there is no heaven on earth in Turkey, however. Pleas for help on social media trigger insults, which is why abandonments are usually done secretly, in darkness, in the parks. And with every new arrival, infections inevitably rise and make the burden heavier on volunteers’ shoulders.

City parks and vacant lots are not ideal habitats for cats. But thanks to one woman’s idea and the efforts of others like her, the lives of the cats of Istanbul are made a little easier.

The work is “a constant struggle,” says Pati volunteer Ozlem Basara. “But at the end of the day, if we provide a safe space for a few animals, we are satisfied.”

Defne Sarioz is a freelance video editor and contributes to various online media outlets. In the past, she worked at Medyascope and Yesil Gazete as an editor/reporter. All photos by Defne Sarioz.