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Middle East & Israel Breaking News » Opinion » Op-Ed Contributors » Article

Blair and the stray cats of Jerusalem

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Already with his new job, based in Jerusalem, Tony Blair will have found reminders of Britain's colonial past. He will also have come face to face with a problem he experienced in Downing Street: the status of stray cats.

A genuine Jerusalem cat.

A genuine Jerusalem cat.
Photo: Tallulah Floyd

Controversy about cats surrounded Blair when he took up his post as prime minister of Britain in 1997. Within months, Humphrey, the resident cat at 10 Downing Street, went missing. This former stray had installed himself in Downing Street eight years earlier and become its official "mouser."

Such was Humphrey's popularity with staff and visitors that he was one of the few to outlast Mrs. Thatcher's hold on Downing Street. Having bid farewell to John Major to welcome Blair, Humphrey suddenly vanished. Questions were even asked in the House of Commons following his disappearance. Headlines speculated on possible causes.

By the time Humphrey died last year in a London suburb, his celebrity had surpassed even that of the royal corgis. By then Blair had learned that feline friends are highly regarded in the UK, where there is one cat for every two households.

HUMPHREY could well become a symbol for Blair of how things become compounded in the Middle East. Instead of dealing with just one former stray, Blair will find that east and west Jerusalem alone have an estimated 50,000 lost and feral cats roaming quiet corners of the streets and scavenging off garbage bins of this ancient city. Others survive by hunting wildlife such as small rodents, sparrows and the odd snake. Some are fed by kind residents.

The sight of unfed stray cats foraging in piles of refuse - and residents passively walking past them is a common sight. Hollow-stomached pregnant cats scamper across streets and alleyways in the quest for food. Their life expectancy is estimated at around two years.

As a spokesperson for the animal charity, JSPCA, explained: "Without human intervention, they suffer from thirst and dehydration during Jerusalem's long hot summers; cold and exposure during the harsh, rainy winters, eventually dying slow, merciless deaths from starvation, thirst, disease, injury, abuse or as food for predators. The problem is exacerbated by the cats' uncontrollable reproduction rate."

IF BLAIR ASKS Ehud Olmert why, despite the Animal Protection Law passed by the Knesset in January 1994, a year after he began his 10 years as mayor of Jerusalem, he himself did little to alleviate the cat population, he may well receive an evasive answer.

Blair will find that, like many other issues in the Middle East, the question of what to do with stray cats has a simple solution that has never been realized. Indeed, the cats in Jerusalem are an analogy to other occupation and residency matters, especially the well-drafted legislation which is frequently disregarded.

This was seen this week with the news that the animal welfare organization Ahava has filed a police complaint about the poisoning of 60 cats and dogs in Kiryat Tivon. Many residents in Jerusalem were surprised. They were unaware of the precedent-setting High Court ruling in 2004 which made the poisoning, killing and deporting of cats a criminal offence. Justices Aharon Barak and Asher Grunis concurred on a ruling by Justice Dorner that the arbitrary and mass killing of street cats was "unlawful and must be rejected." The case had been brought to the courts by the Cat Welfare Society of Israel and Let the Animals Live organization.

THE YEAR 2004 also saw another advance for the cats of Israel. This followed a conference co-sponsored by CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals in Israel) and various government departments which agreed to replace the slow and painful strychnine poisonings of animals with humane control measures such as capturing and neutering.

These new restrictions meant that nobody could kill cats in order to control the population - cats now had to be neutered and released to their home patch. Yet despairing hotel proprietors secretly continue the practice.

However, the municipality, which formerly used euthanasia as the only means to control the population, now has a spaying program in place. The chief veterinary officer for the municipality, Dr Zohar Dvorkin, said: "About 2,000 stray cats a year are now being neutered in Jerusalem. We do about 1,000, and the animal charities do about the same number."

But 2,000 is not enough. The majority of stray cats face an uncertain future and despite their dilemma - like much else in the Middle East - being widely discussed, not enough happens. Adela Gertner of Spay Israel said they were looking for donors so they can carry out more operations each week.

BLAIR IS not likely to see the cats when he visits the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. Timid and nervous, they stay away from busy places, scurrying to quiet corners when they hear footsteps. However, if Blair goes to the Jaffa Road Car Park he will see cat skeletons. The parking lot attendant who has been feeding the cats living there believes that there are 65 cats, including kittens. Numbers fluctuate. Every week a few more die, run over by cars, succumbing to illness and disease, starvation and dehydration.

Blair may also be reminded that Jerusalem's cat problem, like much of today's strife in the Middle East, partially resulted from the British Mandate period. It is sometimes claimed that these local cats came from the British, that it was the animal-loving British who made the practice of domestic cats widespread in Jerusalem. Indeed, many things may appear to come full circle with Blair's arrival.

The writer, Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, is a vice-president of the RSPCA in England. She is author of God, Guns & Israel and 15 other books, is presently researching the family law for Arab Christians in Israel. She is affiliated to the Truman Institute at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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