The lairy, wary cats stalking Jerusalem bins
- 18 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
There is some evidence that humans and cats first learned to cohabit in the Middle East, where cat bones are often discovered among the architectural ruins. But there is nothing sentimental about the relationship between people and the cats that roam Jerusalem's streets.
No animals were hurt during the writing of this article.
A couple of bin bags got ripped open and I got a bit of a shock - but otherwise, everyone is OK.
I felt I had to establish that because this is a story about cats - and the cats around my way are probably tougher than the dogs around your way.
I am not talking about the kind of kittens who play with balls of darning wool and eat chicken pieces simmered in tarragon cream.
Our cats are lairy, wary, rangy creatures. Quick on their feet and short on lovability.
They look as though if they rolled up the fur on their front paws to prepare for a fight you would find the muscles below bulging with tattoos of daggers and anchors.
They are among Israel's two million or so feral cats - most of whom appear to live in the bin shed outside my apartment building.
I first noticed them the very first time I went to take out the rubbish.
From inside the shed I heard a quietly determined tapping noise - not the sort of sound you would expect from wild animals.
It sounded more like the measured knocking you would hear from inside a magician's cabinet and the glamorous assistant had been asked to prove that all four walls are solid.
I was briefly transported back to a time when I lived in Russia where our bins were patrolled by rats the size of corgis but when the shed door sprung open three pairs of amber eyes glinted back from the depths.
Cats. Working to open the bins and the bags.
They were motionless, but not with the rigid panic of wrongdoers caught in the act, it was more with the irritated hauteur of important officials interrupted in the middle of important work.
They sloped off, their dignity a reproach to my nerve in throwing my own rubbish into my own bin outside my own home.
I had not quite realised until then how much cats are a part of daily life here.
So some time later, throwing more rubbish away in the dark I reached out to check that there was room in the communal bins for my bags and was surprised to find a sinuous, stirring, slithering furriness under and over my hands.
When I say surprised I actually leapt like one of those startled cartoon characters who leaves behind the cut out shape of his body as he hurtles upwards through the roof.
I mentioned it to a neighbour who shrugged and said: "Just ignore them." Perhaps the most useless advice I have heard since: "Blame it on the Bossa Nova."
There are plenty of feral cats elsewhere in the Middle East too but the great thing about being a citizen of a former colonial power is that almost any problem you ask about can somehow be traced back directly to your national door.
So there is a theory that the feline population of Jerusalem began to expand when the city was under British rule between the wars when cats were introduced to control rats.
As so often in government, yesterday's solution is now today's problem.
My battle with the cats over access to our bin shed is hardly the most pressing territorial issue in these parts of course but it has proved just as intractable as the others.
An organisation called Meow Mitzvah is part of the search for a solution which will almost certainly involve a mass programme of spaying and neutralisation.
The midnight sounds of mating season at the moment suggest that the programme still has some distance to run.
It is not the keening and caterwauling I mind so much as the eerily human nature of the plangent cries, which can sound like anything from a baby crying to a couple of nightclub bouncers fighting in an alley.
Let us just say those two million cats were not produced with the aid of mood lighting and a box of chocolates.
So I was surprised to find myself a little put out when I noticed that one of the more memorable cats, who hangs around our bin shed, went missing for a week or so recently.
He is a little bigger than the others and is a sort of fluffy charcoal colour, like a dandelion puff ball dipped in soot.
In a city of erratic drivers I feared the worst. Feral cats live and die anonymously - the best they can hope for is to get shovelled to the side of the road.
But eventually he turned up again, sporting a rather raffish torn ear in a sort of "You should see the other cat" kind of way.
I am not sure if feral cats have leaders - I see no pattern to their comings and goings beyond a fixation with my rubbish - but the street had not quite seemed the same without him.
We co-habit grudgingly, the cats and I.
I have got them under my bin rather than under my skin and they are noisy neighbours, but they do make every trip to the bin closet a safari and as British rulers here once discovered, they certainly keep the rats down.
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