Istanbul’s lengthy history as a port city likely contributed to its modern-day status as a street-cat capital, with felines from all over the world finding their way to the city on the cargo boats where they were kept to take care of mice. Later, when the Ottomans built Istanbul’s first sewer systems, cats proved useful at fending off rodents on land too.
People in Istanbul have long cared for the city’s non-human residents: In the Ottoman era, many houses were constructed with cat doors, and many mosques with built-in birdhouses, says Torun. “Many people told me, if you’re a true Muslim, you’re a lover of all animals,” she adds, explaining that the texts of Islam, Turkey’s majority faith, include stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s particular love for cats. But as Istanbul has grown from village to town to crowded megalopolis, that duty has come to seem more and more imperative.