At mid­night, Jerusalem Old City’s ‘cat lady’ prowls

‘Al­lah and Prophet Mo­hammed (PBUH) want big strong men to be nice to an­i­mals’

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

It is nearly mid­night when Tova Saul, an Ortho­dox Jew, ap­proaches the Mus­lim quar­ter of Jerusalem’s Old City, car­ry­ing two large cases and a va­ri­ety of con­trap­tions. Within an hour, a row will have started that will see four peo­ple, in­clud­ing Saul, dragged to a po­lice sta­tion. But for now she’s search­ing for cats. For more than two decades she has fed and cared for hun­dreds of cats, earn­ing the in­for­mal ti­tle of the walled Old City’s “cat lady”. It’s not a nick­name she likes. “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.

In much of the Mediter­ranean basin, where win­ters are mild and open piles of rub­bish plen­ti­ful, stray cats are ubiq­ui­tous. The labyrinthine Old City, nearly a square kilo­me­ter (less than half a square mile) and home to some of the holi­est sites in Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam and Ju­daism, also hosts hun­dreds, per­haps thou­sands of al­ley cats. Across Jerusalem there are more than 100,000 strays, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity es­ti­mates, with only a lim­ited gov­ern­ment plan to deal with the prob­lems they pose. But there is Saul and a few other vol­un­teers. ‘A lot of suf­fer­ing’

Saul, who is un­mar­ried, came to Is­rael in the 1980s from the United States and has been car­ing for an­i­mals ever since. Since she started count­ing prop­erly in 2009 she has caught and had spayed over 600 cats, while feed­ing thou­sands more. “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,” she said. “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.”

Last year, she says she spent $15,000 (13,000 euros) of her own money on the cats, re­ceiv­ing back just $7,000 in do­na­tions. The rest of her time, Saul, who is in her fifties, with curly brown hair and loose fit­ting clothes, is a tour guide and Airbnb host. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity used to poi­son strays but that pro­gram was scrapped more than a decade ago, said As­saf Brill, head of the city’s vet­eri­nary ser­vice. Num­bers have since mul­ti­plied and bud­gets re­main tight. “Jerusalem has a very poor pop­u­la­tion and the bud­get is needed for a lot of things,” he said.

They rely on vol­un­teers and Saul is one of the city’s most ac­tive-work­ing in ar­eas many Jewish peo­ple are un­will­ing to visit. She started in the Old City’s Jewish Quar­ter, where she lives in a two-bed­room flat cur­rently filled with five cats and six kit­tens. She feeds them out of a fry­ing pan, while the spare room where a sick fe­line is quar­an­tined has been closed off. Within a few years she has trapped and had spayed all the fe­male cats in the Jewish Quar­ter.

Food fight

AFP ac­com­pa­nied Saul on a mis­sion in the Mus­lim Quar­ter on an av­er­age Wed­nes­day night. The area, with lanes too nar­row for cars and flanked by small stalls, still holds fear for many Jews. Is­raeli po­lice, seen as oc­cu­piers by Pales­tinian res­i­dents and in­ter­na­tional law, are reg­u­larly at­tacked. There have also been at­tacks, some deadly, on Jewish civil­ians. As an Is­raeli Amer­i­can who speaks only one phrase of badly pro­nounced Ara­bic, “Al­lah and Prophet Mo­hammed (PBUH) want big strong men to be nice to an­i­mals”, she ad­mits to concerns.

“There have been a few times where they (Pales­tini­ans) have said: ‘What are you do­ing?’ And I ex­plain to them and they look at me and they have th­ese big brown eyes, th­ese beau­ti­ful eyes, and they say: ‘Wow, thank you. You have a good heart.’” She usu­ally likes to work be­tween one and five in the morn­ing when the streets are de­serted, but this night starts a lit­tle ear­lier. She spies a cat out­side the gate she hasn’t seen be­fore and traps it-it will be taken to the city vet in the morn­ing. Then she en­ters the Old City and sets up her baited traps. A cat is about to en­ter when a group of Pales­tinian youths ar­rive, star­tling it. Af­ter some terse words they move on.

Within min­utes, three ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish men stop and stand by the trap. Saul says very re­li­gious peo­ple of all faiths of­ten have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of an­i­mals. She asks them, po­litely at first, to move on but they refuse. Within a few min­utes the scene es­ca­lates. “The Nazis be­haved ex­actly like that,” one man says. “Hitler kissed his dog at the same time as send­ing peo­ple to the cre­ma­to­rium.”

Saul is in­can­des­cent. “A Jew call­ing an­other Jew a Nazi?” she shouts. She throws hum­mus at the man, splat­ter­ing his back. Po­lice ar­rive and all four are taken to the sta­tion. Af­ter half­hearted apolo­gies, they are re­leased with­out charges, but by now it is nearly 2:30 am. Saul heads back to the car to grab her traps. For Jerusalem’s cat lady, the night is just getting started. — AFP

— Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

A pic­ture shows the moon dur­ing a par­tial lu­nar eclipse as seen from Kuwait City on Au­gust 7, 2017.

Tova Saul, an Ortho­dox Jew, feeds stray cats in a neigh­bor­hood in Jerusalem’s Old City. — AFP pho­tos

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