Israel’s Cat-astrophe

With approximately two million street cats, Israel has a significant cat problem. At the current rate of street cat reproduction, the cat population will overtake the human population in the next few years. The density of street cats in Israel’s cities is one of the highest in the world. It is estimated there are 2,000 cats per km². While cats are great vermin controllers, they are also causing significant damage to wildlife, such as birds, reptiles, lizards, geckos, and mammals. 

They are literally everywhere, in cities, towns, trees, under and on top of cars, hiding behind trees, on top of fences, hanging around outdoor markets, restaurants and cafes. 

Starving street cats raid garbage bins
Starving street cats raid garbage bins
Cat History

During the 1930s, the British introduced cats to Palestine (now Israel). The British believe the cats would solve the rat plague problem in the country, which they did. However, the cats reproduced prolifically, and consequently, the street cat population increased significantly. With a very mild climate in Israel, it is favourable for cats to live outdoors and reproduce.

Female cats can have up to three litters annually, and cats begin reproducing from 6 months of age. Most litters produce up to 9 – 15 kittens. In addition to Israel’s favourable climate there is an abundance of food scraps in gutters, and overflowing garbage bins, as many people throw food scraps out on the streets to feed the cats.

Street cats are also offspring of domestic cats whose owners don’t neuter their cats. As a result, many kittens are abandoned and become street cats. Unfortunately, these kittens, along with all the other street cats, have never lived with humans and therefore are skittish and fearful of humans. As a result, they remain elusive and challenging to catch. 

A trio of stray cats, Tel Aviv
A trio of stray cats, Tel Aviv
Cats are natural predators

Cats are natural and opportunistic predators, be it feral or domestic cats. When food sources are scarce, cats will resort to hunting. For example, cats prey on rats, mice, birds, lizards, snakes, and other small mammals and insects.

Stray cats of Florentin
Stay cats of Florentin
Ecosystem imbalance

This impacts the balance in the ecosystem. For example, birds and reptiles keep the insect population under control which prevents extensive damage to farmers’ crops. The cats decimating the bird and reptile population impacts the normal functioning ecosystem.

Four cats scavaging at a local market in Akko, Israel
Four cats scavaging at a local market in Akko, Israel
Disease

Sadly, a street cats’ life is very short. Approximately 75 – 90% of cats will die within their first year, and the remainder has a lifespan of only 3 – 4 years. In comparison, domestic cats can live up to 10-15 years. 

Deaths occur due to disease, vehicle collisions and dog attacks. In addition, unvaccinated street cats are reservoirs for numerous illnesses, some of which affect humans and other animals. 

Diseases include heartworm, toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever, leukemia, leptospirosis, mumps, rabies, kidney disease, ringworm, herpes, dental infections, salmonellosis, and numerous parasites, plus many other contagious infections. 

These diseases can spread to wildlife that comes in contact with street cats. Most street cats are unvaccinated for feline diseases. Additionally, domestic cats are at high risk of infections from stray cats, causing illness and increased veterinary bills for owners. 

Untreated infections following street fights between domestic and street cats can cause urinary tract infections and abscesses, resulting in slow and painful deaths. Street cats are prone to dental issues whereby they lose teeth and are unable to eat causing malnutrition and starvation.

Very unwell looking and disheveled street cat, Tel Aviv
Very unwell looking and dishevelled street cat, Tel Aviv
Community cares

Many people do not consider street cats a problem. Some refer to street cats as their “community cats”, while others refer to them as ‘feral cats’ or ‘free-roaming cats’. As I walked around the streets, there were cats everywhere in varying health states. However, it appears that many people genuinely care for the street cats and feed them. People leave food and water around the streets, and locals come out and feed the cats at regular times of the day. 

Stray cat feeding, Tel Aviv
Stray cat feeding, Tel Aviv

Many people complain about the excess cat food left on the ground and their droppings which creates a sanitation problem. In addition, excess food attracts more rodents, jackals, and ravens, which add to the community pest problem.

Two women feed these cats every day at the same time, Tel Aviv
Two very caring women feed street cats every day at the same time and place, Tel Aviv
Protection

To protect the street cats, the Israeli Government implemented an Animal Cruelty Act in 1994, which prevents any animal cruelty. This Act also forbids any mass extinction of any stray animals.

On the other hand, there is the religious aspect to be considered. Jewish law prohibits cruelty to animals. In Islam, animals have their position in the creation hierarchy, and humans are responsible for their wellbeing and food. Christianity forbids animal cruelty and demands mercy toward all creatures. Each faith has a moral and humane obligation toward the cat problem

Many animal activist groups want the cats trapped, neutered, and released (TNR) back into the community. The treated cats have their ears clipped for identification. The street cat population continues to increase despite some attempts at controlling their numbers.

Skittish stray cat hiding in window garden box in Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv
Skittish stray cat hiding in window garden box in Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv

 

Stray cat sitting on car bonnet, Jerusalem
Sad looking stray cat sitting on a car bonnet, Jerusalem
Stray cat warming up on the bonnet of a car, Tel Aviv
Stray cat warming up on the bonnet of a car, Tel Aviv
Stray, keeping safe from humans high up on a concrete fence, Tel Aviv
Stray, keeping safe from humans high up on a concrete fence, Tel Aviv
Solution?

To date, there appears to be no united and effective solution to control and improve the street cat problem in Israel. It is a very emotional issue and one of heated debate. 

Cat lovers want to keep them. Angry neighbours want them gone. Rescue organisations want to save them. Wildlife organisations want them gone as they are a danger to wildlife. Others wish the cats should be trapped, captured, and euthanised. Unfortunately, animal shelters do not have the resources to care for stray cats.  

One such suggestion is that people should stop feeding the street cats and keep garbage bins closed to reduce the population. But unfortunately, it would only end up starving the cats, adding more suffering to their short, sad, and miserable lives. 

If sterilisation and euthanasia are not considered humane by some, how is starving the strays and letting them die on the streets from painful diseases any better?

Image courtesy of My animal care.org
Image courtesy of My animal care.org

It is a moral, religious, communal, government and wildlife dilemma on how to deal with the strays in Israel. Meanwhile, the stray cat population continues to increase. The difficulty will continue until a united solution to managing the street cats of Israel is agreed upon.

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