Jerusalem Approves Feeding Program for Stray Cats, Experts Warn of Unintended Consequences

Zoologists say more food means more cats, which will change the ecosystem and attract other animals that the city is trying to keep out of urban areas

Stray cats in Jerusalem, 2005.
Lior Mizrahi

The Jerusalem Municipality announced a new feeding program last week for the city’s large street cat population, but zoologists and urban wildlife experts have warned that this move might have unintended consequences. The municipality said it would spend 100,000 shekels ($27,000) a year on food for the city’s street felines, and it has also opened feeding stations where cat lovers can leave their own food and water for Jerusalem’s street cats.

“When I understood the size of the problem and the great distress that [the cats] were in, I enlisted to the task immediately,” newly elected Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon said. “The Jerusalem Municipality will maintain the balance between the residents’ quality of life of and that of the cats through care, not through animal neglect,” he added.

No one denies that, like many other cities in Israel, Jerusalem has a street cat problem, with many suffering from hunger and disease. The problem has worsened in recent years after the city upgraded its trash receptacles and started using closed ones that cats can’t rummage through.

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The city plans to purchase seven bags of dry food for the cats every day. But experts claim that the city’s new program will lead to more suffering for cats and other animals living in the city.

 A cat feeding station in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv, January 23, 2019.
Emil Salman

The director of urban wildlife at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Amir Balaban, said the cat feeding stations were problematic. “When you supply a continuous and regular source of food, you prevent the [ecosystem] from regulating the size of the population.”

In the past, he said, there were large quantities of food that the large number of cats could rummage through. Although it’s good that the authorities have improved the trash cans, limiting the cats’ access to the food has led to a traumatic situation, he said, “but the feeding stations are not the solution.”

The stations will increase the number of street cats, which also means an increase in the harm they cause to other urban wildlife because cats prey on small birds and other protected animals, including lizards and other reptiles, Balaban said. The cat feeding stations will also attract other animals, such as stray dogs, rats, ravens and rock hyraxes (a medium-sized mammal common in Africa and the Middle East). All of these are animals that the authorities are trying to keep out of urban areas, Balaban noted, and rock hyraxes are a specific concern because they are carriers of sandflies that carry leishmaniasis, a disease that causes shallow to deep skin ulcers that are hard to treat but are seldom dangerous. 

The city said that the locations of the feeding stations will coordinated with professionals and with the public’s involvement to maintain cleanliness and to avoid creating nuisances. “At the same time, the veterinary service continues to neuter street cats” and will make efforts to find additional funding for this purpose, the city said.

A cat feeding station in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv, January 23, 2019.
Emil Salman

Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University’s zoology department said that he knows that his comments in opposition to the city’s plan will cause a backlash among cat lovers, but Jerusalem has the highest concentration of street cats of any city in the world, with about 2,000 cats per square kilometer (5,000 cats per square mile), about 1,000 times the concentration of feral cats in natural settings. “It’s insanity. The more they feed cats, the more cats there will be.”

Yom-Tov added that studies show that spaying and neutering programs for street cats are also ineffective and the only way to reduce stray cat populations in the city is to reduce the amount of food that they have access to. “Everything being done is a waste of money,” he said, and if the program is pursued, the rock hyrax population will increase in Jerusalem, along with leishmaniasis.

On a visit this month to the East Jerusalem Pisgat Ze’ev settlement, Yom-Tov said he saw 15 of what he described as “fat cats” at a feeding station “along with rock hyraxes eating bread that someone had left at the station.” Balaban added that he understands that there are people whose hearts break over the situation of street cats, but feeding them, he said, has consequences. “If someone cares about animals, they should take them home,” he concluded.