Israelis Are at War. Over Cats

The debate surrounding free-roaming street cats – oops, ‘community cats’ – is raging in Israel ■ A recent 12-year field study claiming that neutering kittens does not stop them proliferating is another cause for dispute ■ And the surprising connection to anti-vaxxers

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A street cat enjoys dinner at a feeding garden in Petah Tikvah in central Israel.
A street cat enjoys dinner at a feeding garden in Petah Tikva in central Israel.Credit: Hadas Parush
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

One of the last things I did at the end of 2021 was to change my WhatsApp profile picture to one with my cat, Doctor. I felt that was the most straightforward way of showing each person I interviewed here that I love cats, that I’m one of the good guys. After all, there are few issues that spark this much emotion among people who have any connection to the subject.

'Someone came up to me at a feeding corner and threatened to kill me. She said, ‘I’ll murder you and poison the cats''

Israel’s Agriculture Ministry estimates there are about 1 million cats roaming about the country’s public spaces. If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that there are too many of them. Cat surplus is bad for the cats themselves, it’s bad for humans, bad for the environment. As for the solution to this problem – it’s hard to find an argument with opposing sides that are more militant. Cat lovers versus angry neighbors, ecologists versus people favoring sterilization, rescue organizations versus municipalities. The situation is so tense, that each side calls the animals in question by a different name, according to its agenda: On one side, these un-owned domestic felines are called “community cats”; for the other, they are “feral cats.” We’ll stick to the scientific term "free-roaming cats."

This problem is now more pressing than ever. The government allocated 12 million shekels ($3.7 million) in October to deal with the issue of free-roaming cats, establishing a committee under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry to formulate recommendations that will lead, for the first time, to creation of a national policy relating to the cat issue. This panel, naturally, has delegates from all warring parties.

A ginger cat at Tel Aviv's Carmel market.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Cats became domesticated some 9,000 years ago. They emerged from an older feline species living in the Middle East. Domesticated cats are not supposed to be on the streets or in the wild; they’re supposed to be at home. But on almost every street corner in this country you can find them, in varying states of health.

“We estimate for example their number in the central Israeli city of Rishon Letzion to be about 25,000 to 30,000,” says municipal veterinarian Yehonatan Even Zor, “and it’s enough for 1 percent to become ill or injured during the year to grasp the sort of numbers we’re dealing with.” But this is not only about numbers. Despite the fact that the veterinary service deals with many issues unrelated to cats, it is flooded by numerous requests and reports involving them.

“Dealing with cats constitutes about 2 to 5 percent of what we do in a given year, but it’s also 90 percent of the hassle,” Dr. Even Zor says, adding that the "heavy" feeders of free-roaming cats call the municipality nonstop. “They want us to act right here and right now. These are people who check on a cat’s condition every two minutes, and generally make sure it isn’t put down although sometimes there’s no other choice”.

Orit Shkedi, a Petah Tikva cat feeder who works as an editor at National Geographic magazine, and a friend.Credit: Hadas Parush

Cat Power

Cities with mid- to upper-socioeconomic class residents will typically have lots of male and (particularly) female cat feeders, taking care of the free-roamers' wellbeing. They play a central and important part in efforts to catch and sterilize the animals, trying to minimize their numbers on the streets while improving their lives.

    “I do this out of compassion, out of a desire to care for other animals,” explains 48-year-old Orit Shkedi, a Petah Tikva cat feeder who works as an editor at National Geographic magazine. Shkedi says she wasn’t always a cat person, but about 20 years ago, after moving in with her partner, she fell in love. Nowadays she feeds about 80 cats, spending about 1,000 shekels (about $314) a month on food in addition to covering the costs of medical treatment and privately done sterilization. “I can’t bear to see them hurting, or feeling bad and hungry. ‘Crazy cat lady’? Yes, that’s me, but in a good way.”

    Tamar also discovered cats relatively late in her life. “It started with an abandoned kitten crying in the bushes that I just had to help. Then, when I was feeding him, others gathered around, and to protect his meal I fed them too. And that’s that: When you start seeing them – I mean really seeing them – you’re done for, and you can never walk away. You get attached. You feel responsible. I have not become a hard-core cat lady like those who are willing to go tend to a sick cat on a stormy night, but it has become part of me”.

    The researchers were surprised: How was it that neighborhoods with high rates of neutering reported an increase in the number of free-roaming kittens?

    On the other hand, there are people – many of them, including family and friends of many of cat feeders – who cannot live with what Orit and Tamar do. “Just recently,” Tamar says, “a neighbor took photos of the food I left out on the street, the kind that’s always snatched away [by cats] and leaves no remaining garbage behind, and sent me violent text messages.”

    And there are even more extreme cases. “Someone came up to me at a feeding corner and threatened to kill me. She said, ‘I’ll murder you and poison the cats,’” says Shlomit Simhi, a PhD student in the women and gender studies program at Tel Aviv University. Simhi is interested in cat-feeding as an “eco-feminist” phenomenon – one based on a research doctrine that ties feminism with environmental justice. “It's happened several times,” Simhi adds – and she’s not the only one to be accosted that way.

    A cat stretches on a rock by the Sea of Galilee. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

    But there are more than just angry neighbors on the other side of the cat coin. “As soon as food is left on the ground, it creates a sanitation problem,” says Dr. Yair Weiss, Haifa's municipal veterinarian. “These leftovers attract wild animals like mice, rats, wild boars, jackals, ravens and other species that exploit them and become pests.”

    Moreover, free-roaming cats may reproduce rapidly and end up where they’re not wanted – underfoot in health and medical facilities, industrial kitchens and so on. Municipal hot lines get dozens of calls every week on cat-related issues, from kittens being born under someone's home to reports of injured or diseased animals. Some 45 percent of all cases of animal bites addressed by the Ministry of Health's chief veterinary office involve cats.

    So, what do we do? Despite being the father of felines for several years, I never really gave though to the issue of free-roaming cats. That changed when I received a telephone call from Prof. Eyal Klement, an expert in veterinary epidemiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He told me of a study he had conducted, with Dr. Idit Gunther, in which they examined the effects of what's called the “Trap-Neuter-Return” method on the free-roaming cat population in Rishon Letzion over a period of 12 years. It turns out that despite the reputation of this method, which "immigrated" to Israel from Britain and was considered highly effective – had never been tested thoroughly until then. That might be the reason this study has provoked so many disputes, emotions, and interest. It demonstrates wonderfully something that has become quite clear in the post-truth era: When facts are inconvenient, we simply search for alternative ones.

    The land of homeless cats: A street cat in Be'er Sheva, southern Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

    The Rishon research

    Gunther, herself a veterinarian, met Klement while taking a course he was giving at the time along with the Rishon Letzion veterinarian Even Zor, focusing on the role of municipal veterinary services in maintaining public health. Even Zor suggested launching an extensive sterilization operation among free-roaming cats in his city, and proposed that the two to seize the opportunity for research purposes.

    Prof. Eyal Klement, an expert in veterinary epidemiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit: The Hebrew University

    During the first phase of their study, between 2007 and 2010, almost no sterilizations were done, and researchers documented residents’ complaints about cats. During the second part, between 2010 and 2014, Rishon’s veterinary department started massive spaying and neutering of the free-roaming cat population in half of the city's neighborhoods, while those in the other half served as a control group. During the third stage, between 2014 and 2018, the initiative was expanded to encompass the entire city. In 2018 the researchers did a final count of the cat population, and last year finished collecting the data and analyzing it.

    Gunther and Klement had expected to find that TNR is highly effective in reducing the cat population, but the truth turned out to be much more complicated. Between 2010 and 2014, the entire population of free-roaming cats in Rishon increased by 26.3 percent, and by no less than 20 percent each year in the neighborhoods where the municipality did not neuter or spay them. During the third part of the study, when the sterilization was done all over Rishon, there was an overall decrease of 23.1 percent in the number of cats, but an annual decrease of only 7 percent. Meaning, the comprehensive neutering/spaying effort did lead to a drop in the number of free-roaming cats, but it was limited.

    “All in all," Gunther says, "we did not see a decrease in numbers. There was a decrease compared to the middle phase of the study."

    Equally interesting is what happened regarding the population of free-roaming kittens. After the sterilization operation was expanded to the entire city, after 2014, the trends were reversed: In group No. 1 (which in the first stage was not neutered or spayed and thus the kitten population increased), there was now an expected decline – of 14.1 percent – in the number of kittens. In group No. 2, which underwent massive sterilization between 2010 and 2014, which continued in the next four years, there was an uptick of 21.4 percent in the kitten population. The researchers were surprised: How was it that neighborhoods with high rates of neutering and spaying reported an increase in the number of free-roaming kittens?

    'Community cats' in Be'er Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

    Gunther and Klement offer a possible explanation: Comprehensive neutering and spaying lead to improvement in the well-being of the cats that do not undergo those processes, because sterilized cats are calmer, eat less and therefore give their non-sterilized friends better access to food. This phenomenon leads to a situation where female cats that live in areas with a high proportion of cats that were sterilized, give birth to a bigger number of kittens and/or have more kittens that survive. In addition to that, Klement explains, fewer kittens will fall victim to cat fights under such circumstances, as the sterilized ones are less aggressive.

    These explanations can be attributed to what's called a “rebound effect” – a sort of population-compensation phenomenon whereby nature in effect "learns" to deal with mechanisms trying to restrict it.

    Gunther: “These mechanisms – the increase in survival rates, reproduction and movement – are the powers working against spaying and neutering. So sterilization is not a magic wand. The cats stay cats, so the problems they cause also remain. If a cat gets into an airplane because there’s a person feeding cats near a hangar at Ben-Gurion airport, it doesn’t matter if it’s sterilized or not: The plane can’t take off. If a cat urinates on an Intel transformer and causes damage in millions – it doesn’t matter if it’s sterilized or not. Some things won’t be solved by sterilization, and some will.”

    The scope of the research and the ground-breaking work conducted by Klement and Gunther led to its consideration for publication by one of the world’s leading scientific journals, the U.S. National Academy of Science's PNAS. Apparently even in the scientific world, a subject of great interest is free-roaming cats in public spaces. Over a year after being submitted, the article is in the final stages of peer review. When its authors asked about the delay, PNAS' chief editor, Prof. May Roberta Berenbaum, wrote: “As you know, ‘cats’ represent an especially controversial issue, with passion and often venom on both sides of the fence. The extreme care being taken is to protect you (the researchers) from an unnecessary backlash.”

    In fact, three persons commented on the article during the first round of review, and two had reservations about its publication: One apparently had an ecological/environmental agenda, basically claiming that free-roaming cats should be kicked off the streets even if they have to be put down (this practice is illegal in Israel since the Supreme Court rendered a decision on the issue in 1999, whereby only ill or dangerous cats can be euthanized); the other reader appeared to have been a “cat lover,” believing in the virtues of TNR. Both of them, Gunther and Klement claim, were straightforward and academic when making their initial remarks, but during the next round offered non-scholarly and baseless arguments. Since the disagreement was unbridgeable, the editors at PNAS sent the article to a fourth academic, who gave a favorable opinion about publishing it. Hopefully publication will follow soon, and it could well have far-reaching consequences, beyond the borders of Israel, on the question of dealing with free-roaming cats. And it all started in Rishon Letzion!

    A woman feeds cats in Bat Yam, central Israel.Credit: Ilan Assayag

    A list of reservations

    At base, the article sparks strong emotions and quite a lot of discussion. Academics and non-academics alike seem to have an opinion about it. After talking with Gunther and Klement, I approached Rivi Meir, former head of Israel’s Cat Welfare Society. Meir, who has no academic background in this field, sent me a document with 17 reservations about the scientists' article. For example, she claimed the study was not conducted with the cooperation of members of Rishon's cat-feeding community – although the researchers said they spoke to 222 of them back in 2013. She also claimed their work wasn’t conducted under laboratory conditions, to which Gunther and Klement replied that the research is valid mainly because it is a field study, done with a control group and over many years. And so it goes, on and on, with respect to all of Meir's comments.

    “The amazing thing is the similarity between what’s being said here, and the criticism we got from the anonymous [peer-review] critic who is obviously biased," Klement says. “It reflects the core of the story, how these groups take over scientific discourse, with vague criticism on well-founded scientific results. It’s like anti-vaxxers – a lot of chatter, but it gets the job done.”

    “This research is not based on reality,” Meir insists. “Unfortunately, it was not done in a properly controlled way. The sterilization and capture of cats weren’t done properly, and thus, based on the municipality’s work, one cannot draw conclusions.”

    When this piece was almost done, I was approached by Ofra Rosenshine, founder and director of the Rishon Loves Animals group who, curiously, somehow heard what I was doing and also wanted to comment. Her remarks resemble those sent by Meir.

    Feed or euthanize

    So how do we untangle the free-roaming cat mess? “We need to do everything, every single thing possible, so that no cat will born on the street. But once it’s born, we’re all responsible for it,” says Yuval Navon, CEO of the Ramat Gan area humane society. “We can’t blame it for being born there, or call it a nuisance. It’s not the cat’s fault. We have to decide if we want to strengthen our array of volunteers, or not. The State of Israel finds it easier for the cat feeder to be responsible for these animals, and for people to take their claims to that person.”

    On the other side are those with an environmental outlook: “First we have to stop feeding the cats on the streets,” says Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. “If you don’t provide food, they will lack the energy to breed, and their numbers will drop dramatically. Feeding cats is good for them in the short run, but in the long run it’s bad for them and bad for us, because we end up with a street animal that’s being treated in a cruel manner. You don’t want to kill them? At least don’t feed them.”

    A heart of gold: it's hard to find a street in Tel Aviv without someone who takes care of hungry street cats.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

    Say Shlomit Simhi, the doctoral student: “Before you set off to kill, can’t we stop and help? Yes, we can. It’s the right thing to do.” The majority of the public, by the way, seems to agree with her. For his part Navon says a poll held by the Ministry of Agriculture as part of a public process aimed at solving the problem of too many free-roaming felines, indicated that 87 percent supported a humane solution and opposed killing.

    Gunther has suggested a plan with a number of steps, from encouraging people to adopt cats, to lobbying for financial support from the state to aid sick cats that can be rehabilitated. She is pro-capture, and favors sterilization and the return of healthy cats to the street, but believes sick ones should be put down if they’re unable to survive there – a common practice in the United States. She believes there should be regulated feedings and other improvements in the public domain, but says: “Israel should decide what it is aiming for. If the aim is to reduce the cat population, the goal will not be achieved without limiting the free amount of food available for cats. If we’re aiming to improve the cats’ well-being and reducing the hassles they cause, then feeding should be limited to certain areas and should be done in a cleaner, more orderly manner.”

    Navon begs to disagree: He has strong reservations against putting down sick cats – “unless the cat is dying and this is euthanasia” – and regulating the feeding. “Such regulation can be extremely dangerous, as it can bring about starvation. If my son comes home from school and sees two cats alone and wants to feed them, am I supposed to say ‘Don’t feed because you aren't authorized’? I think it’s unrealistic”.

    He adds that TNR efforts in the country should be significantly strengthened with more cat captors, veterinarians trained to deal with large numbers of animals and offer high-quality and faster treatment – and most of all: a nationwide educational campaign for cat adoption must be launched. On this issue,

    Gunther, Navon and Haifa veterinarian Weiss, who all sit on the above-mentioned Ministry of Agriculture committee, agree.

    “This whole issue is filled with emotions, because animal lovers, and especially cat lovers, are unique people, and I’m not saying if that's for better or for worse,” Weiss says. “Quite a number of them are the kind that communicate well with animals but not as good with humans”.

    Simhi is upset by that approach: “It’s easy to typecast the ‘crazy cat lady.' There are so many stereotypes along that line, some positive but mostly negative. People need to understand the reason for all this is a long, historical-cultural connection between women and cats. Cats, for example, are connected to women in the realms of mystery, seduction, eroticism, sexual promiscuity and even evil. The cats’ traits are projected on women, and vice versa.”

    A bit of utopia

    Gunther and Klement met me on a cold morning on Yahalom Street in Petah Tikva. They were joined by Dr. Tika Brown, the municipal veterinarian, and Orit Shkedi, the cat feeder. On this street there is a special corner, unlike anywhere else in Israel – a cat park. This park, which Gunther initiated with the municipality to the tune of some 100,000 shekels, has a fence with cat-sized openings and miniature stairs to use to climb and find shelter. A small utopia for the homeless, roaming cats.

    The goal was to move the feeding by cat-lovers in the area to the park itself. But Shkedi is the only one constantly using it, providing food for some 20 whiskered creatures.

    “Relocating cats is really hard," she says. “I’m still trying to move some from the other end of the street, and they’re afraid. Cats are very territorial. They want their corner, and they won’t budge.” When Shkedi mentions that there’s a man who feeds the cats irregularly in the area, Gunther explains that such a situation is counterproductive: If there were regular feeding times, and only at the cat park, many more would show up.

    As expected, the route to building the cat park was filled with obstacles. Animal rights groups, under the umbrella of Noah, the Israeli Animal Protection NGO, opposed it; for her part, Rivi Meir still says it's a waste of money. “It’s unrealistic,” she explains. “Cats will not go to a specific park to eat, because they’re a territorial animal. There are no solutions [to the problem of free-roaming cats] except massive and professional sterilizations, and that’s what we need to spend money on.”

    Brown was able to convince Noah’s legal counsel of the importance of the park, since it allows for some feeding and monitoring of cats, and a place in which to find cats that have not yet been sterilized. “Those living at the other end of the city won’t come here,” Brown says. “We still have work to do. The cats themselves will eventually come to a place that’s good for them.”

    Still, the situation of free-roaming cats in Petah Tikva is one of the best in Israel: Cat feeders and city officials coordinate efforts; indeed, WhatsApp groups have been organized that have about a 100 feeders with a municipal license who use organized feeding spots. According to Brown, 15 to 30 spots are added every year, and the city’s veterinary clinic works 24/7 treating cats. These days the municipality is also working on creating another, larger cat park.

    If city veterinarians and animal rescue groups were once bitter rivals, things have improved. Gunther and Klement, too, are often criticized from various quarters but, says Klement, "a former head of veterinary services once told me: If you’re under fire from both sides, it means you’re going to a good place.”

    All that remains is to hope the cats won’t get caught in the crossfire.

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