Ever since she moved to Jerusalem from Toronto, in the 1980s, Tova Saul has dedicated her life to looking after the street cats of Israel. She prowls the streets of the Old City carrying bags of food for the felines, provides medical attention to any injured animals she finds by either taking them to the vet, or welcoming them into her home, and takes females to be spayed in hopes of slowing down the rate at which the street cat population of Jerusalem has been growing for several decades. Some call her the “Cat Lady of Jerusalem”, but she is more of an unofficial chief caretaker of the stray cats in the Israeli city.
The Mediterranean basin in general is home to a lot of cats, due to the favorable climate – the weather is generally warm and winters are very mild. It is estimated that there are currently over two million street cats in Israel today, and about 100,000 of them are in Jerusalem. It wasn’t always like this. though. Up until the 1930s, the cat population was small, but under the British Mandate, felines were brought in to deal with the rat problem, and they thrived. They’ve been multiplying at such an accelerated rate that, a couple of years ago, the Israeli minister of agriculture suggested that all male or female cats be deported to another receptive country. That has yet to happen, but it gives you an idea of how authorities intend on dealing with the problem. That’s definitely not how Tova Saul sees things. She believes that compassion and responsibility are key to finding a viable solution to this issue.
Photo: National Geographic video screengrab
Saul has been trying to help the street cats in Jerusalem Old City ever since she came to Israel, nearly four decades ago. She only started keeping count of the cats she rescued and spayed in 2009, and the number is currently over 600. Every day, she walks through the ancient quarter carrying bags full of cat food and a couple of cages, in case she finds any felines in need of medical care, or a female that has to be spayed. She refers to her home as a revolving door for cats, because as soon as she gets a cat on its feet and ready to be released, another one comes in. But she’s been doing it for so long that it has become a lifestyle.
“Six hundred and twenty cats having kittens — they can have kittens two or three times a year, each cat having three or four kittens at a time,” Saul said about the cats she has spayed since 2009. “Most of those kittens die after a lot of suffering and literally hundreds of people walking past them, watching them go blind, watching them crying for their mothers, watching them being eaten alive by fleas.”
Photo: National Geographic video screengrab
Although Tova Saul works with a number of veterinary clinics and cat shelters in Jerusalem, she says that most people don’t really care about cats and their problems. They don’t see neutering and spaying as a necessity, especially the religious folks. Some are actually against such practices, and even Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Uri Ariel once declared himself against them, citing a biblical commandment to populate the earth. He soon retracted his statement, after media backlash.
Many people think they are helping the cats by throwing them food every day, but they are only contributing to the problem, Saul says, because they are not spaying them, so they just wonder off and keep reproducing. Tova sometimes gets into trouble when confronted by religious people who interfere with her efforts to catch female cats to be spayed, but after so many years on the “front lines” it’s almost become routine.
And then there is the fact that people have gotten so use to seeing the cats everywhere, and the preconception that they’ll be fine on their own. But Tova Saul claims that that’s not the case at all. There really isn’t that much trash for the cats to go scouring for food in, not with so many of them around, anyway. Plus, they are often victims of physical abuse, become infested with fleas, and many kittens are abandoned and die a slow and cruel death. She does all she can to help as many of them as she can, but she is just one person.
Tova Saul is often referred to as the Cat Lady of Jerusalem, but she doesn’t like the nickname. “When people refer to me as the cat lady, they are actually defining everybody else as people who won’t lift a finger to help an animal in need. So really it’s an insult to the human race,” she told AFP.