Thu, Aug 10, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Jerusalem’s feline savior

After feeding and caring for stray cats in both the Jewish and Muslim quarters for more than two decades, Tova Saul is know locally as the ‘cat lady’ – just don’t call her that to her face

AFP, Jerusalem

Tova Saul feeds stray cats in a neighborhood in Jerusalem`s Old City.

Photo: AFP

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 says.

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 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.


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 says.

“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 US$15,000 of her own money on the cats, receiving back just US$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.

Saul 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.


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 Mohammed want big strong men to be nice to animals”, she admits to concerns.

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