Street cats are everywhere in Israel, in huge numbers. I and others can attest that they don’t look good: they tend to be dirty and skinny, often with visible skin infections and eye problems. Their lifespans average just one or two years, compared to 13-17 years for cats who live indoors or in managed colonies.
Most of the cats’ human neighbors have historically considered them vermin and wanted them gone. People have yelled at me for feeding cats near their apartments or houses. One Israeli veterinarian says, “in Israel it’s as though no one cares. There is no awareness here.” Even cat lovers lack basic awareness about solutions to the enormous street cat population. A spokesperson for the Israeli chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said, “the public is at fault…because people are not spaying/neutering their pets.”
Israelis resist neutering male companion animals in particular, just as Americans have and still do — witness the commercial success of Neuticles, artificial testicles that can be implanted to make a neutered cat appear intact. The manufacturer promotes Neuticles as a way to aid “the pet’s owner with the trauma associated with altering.” I’m trying to make sense of that. Maybe the trauma and resistance result from men projecting their own fears of castration or insecurities about their masculinity onto their cats. Whatever their problem is, these people are not acting in their cats’ interests. Neutering can preserve their health and, by reducing their aggression, lower the risk of injury from violent fights.
The outlook for street cats in Israel is improving thanks to changing attitudes. The Israeli government just committed 4.5 million NIS (about 1.27 million in U.S. dollars) to trap, spay or neuter, and release 45,000 feral cats before June 2014. There are an estimated 39,000 street cats in the Tel Aviv area alone — just one shelter, the SPCA, takes in 200 kittens every day during breeding season — so the government’s plan is not a comprehensive solution.
Nonetheless, it is a huge step forward. TNR is the only viable option to improve Israeli street cats’ quality of life. The country has few animal shelters, so rounding up neighborhood cats and dropping them off at a shelter doesn’t work — they will either be turned away or killed. Adopting feral cats, excluding young kittens, rarely succeeds because they have learned to fear humans and usually can’t change their ways. When I found an apparently orphaned kitten on the street a few years ago, days before I was scheduled to return to the United States, I called every person, organization and governmental agency I could think of looking for someone to take him in. None of them could help. (Eventually I found the little guy’s mother and reunited the family.)
The government’s cash infusion could not only save cats’ lives; it could also improve their health. When feral cats are spayed or neutered and then returned to a colony that has conscientious human managers, they can stay quite healthy. Good colony managers keep the fixed cats fed, provide places to sleep that protect them from the elements, monitor their health and trap new arrivals for spaying or neutering.
Israeli animal advocates, like CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals in Israel), emphasize that TNR efforts will not make a difference without excellent colony managers. Others argue that TNR will increase the street cat population, based on a study by a student at Tel Aviv University.
The United States is full of individuals and organizations, like hospitals, universities, airports and military bases, that reject TNR and instead kill feral cats on their property. The fact that Israel is embracing TNR on a national level could eventually put it far ahead of the United States in terms of treating ferals humanely.
It could also mean that the next time I visit the country and go for a walk, I won’t have to carry cat treats with me because I won’t pass hungry ferals on my way. TNR could improve not just cats’ quality of life, but mine too.
Photo credit: Shayan