Last month I had the great pleasure of meeting Raphaella Bilski, author of My Street Cats: Their Personalities and Social Behavior, on Facebook. Her love of stray cats, and her mission to help them for over 16 years touched my heart.
Raphaella kindly shared her book and her story with me, which I am delighted to share with you in the summary/book review posted here, and in this interesting and heartwarming interview. Enjoy.
Why did you write My Street Cats?
After having taken care of a particular community of cats in my garden for almost 14 years, I thought it would be a good idea to pass on the knowledge that I’d gained to others. I hope that people who care for stray and feral cats will benefit from my experience and that the public at large will become more familiar with these amazing animals. Hopefully familiarity will mean that cats are better liked and, most importantly, better treated by society.
I have no illusions. I know that no book can stop the abusers of animals, but if “My Street Cats” helps create a more compassionate environment for stray and feral cats this will change how society reacts to the abusers who currently feel that they can do whatever they want with impunity. Only this will deter such people from future cruelty against street cats and other animals.
How did you get involved with helping street cats? Why?
It all began with my mother. Years before I was born, she was already taking care of street cats as part of her daily routine. When I was about 5-years-old, she told me that she was feeding the cats because, living on the street, they can’t get enough food by themselves, so that they would probably die if people didn’t feed them. Another memory that stays with me is one (extremely) rainy day when my mother took me out to search the backyards of nearby houses for kittens that might have fallen into a water-filled hole, so as to save them from drowning.
So you see, I grew up with my mother’s convictions and sensibilities and wherever I ended up living as an adult, I always made sure that I knew where the street cats congregated and fed them regularly.
Is there a difference between street cats and feral cats? Are most of them feral, or are many displaced from homes?
Most of what I call ‘street cats’ are commonly known as feral cats. Only about 10% of the cats I feed are stray cats who were thrown out of their homes. During all my time caring for street cats, only twice did people leave their (gorgeous) pet cats in cages at my doorstep.
It’s very hard for a house cat to learn to live on the street and it took a lot of doing on my part to help them adjust and make their lives less miserable. Unfortunately, the two cats never really integrated into the community that lived and fed in my garden.
What is the most important thing you learned about yourself by taking care of these cats?
A lifetime of taking care of street cats has taught me that when I love and respect someone – whether it’s a person, a dog, or a cat – there is almost no end to the lengths that I would go for them.
A small example: I hate, and I do mean HATE, walking alone in the dark, especially when there isn’t anyone else in sight. But when I hear the crying of small kittens at night, I immediately go out and scour the neighborhood for them (yes, even the isolated backyards) to see what’s the matter and address the problem as best I can.
How many cats are in your garden community at this time? Would you tell us about one or two of them?
In 2004 the law in Israel changed regarding street cats, which made TNR programs readily accessible to caregivers like me. I began implementing the program among my cats. As a result, no more kittens were born into the community of street cats, and this radically changed the group’s social structure. Today, there is no longer a community of cats living in my garden and no more families. I currently take care of 16 ‘regular’ cats and 4 temporary ‘visitors.’ Their lives are a bit scattered. Some live in my garden, most stay in nearby gardens in the neighborhood. They want to be close enough to their meal ticket!
The cats do form friendships in this new colony. One of the most beautiful relationships that I’ve witness was between a black cat named Shak (‘shahor’ means black in Hebrew), and a black-and-white cat called Shnuki. They were siblings by the same mother, but born a few generations apart. I will tell you a little bit about Shnuki, a cat who was born on the street but came to live with me, and who died 6 months ago from FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis). He was only two-years-old. Shnuki’s death hit Shak and me pretty hard. Shak never tried to make another friend among the cats who feed in my garden and the two of us spend much time together, thinking about Shnuki.
When Shnuki was finally diagnosed with FIP (after several false diagnoses), he had hardly been eating for the previous two week. Indeed, a major symptom of this deadly disease is loss of appetite. The senior vet at the veterinarian hospital who made the diagnosis suggested that Shnuki should be put to sleep immediately, as there is no cure for FIP and the cat was in very poor condition. He also said that according to the existing literature on FIP, once the diagnosis is confirmed cats have no more than a month before they succumb to the disease.
I said no. I wasn’t ready to give up on the Shnuk just yet. Instead, I asked the vet to give Shnuki something to help with the nausea and took him home.
At home I have a wide selection of different brands of dry cat food for individual cats with various health problems. Upon entering the house Shnuki and immediately went over to the where I keep the food bags. The anti-nausea medication obviously helped. I took some food out of each bag and let him choose. He went from one food pile to the next, smelling them all, and finally settled on one type of food and started eating. It was a special medical formula for cats with poor kidney function. This food he ate for seven months. Except for the last couple of weeks of his live, he lived these months relatively healthy, enjoying life and his friend Shak. Shnuki was a cat with a sixth sense.
Shnuki was a very special cat in many other ways. My friends would often come over to visit just to be with the Shnuk. They all said he was a spiritual cat. I’m currently working on a short book about Shnuki where I tell of this extraordinary cat and my life with him.
I was surprised to read how friendly some of the cats are with you. How long does it normally take for a cat to warm up to you and what do you do, if anything, to encourage this?
If we’re talking about kittens, it all depends on whether the mother will accept my help and allow me to feed and handle them starting from when they are just a few weeks old. If socialized in this way, the kittens will almost always become your best friends!
With adult feral cats it’s a completely different story. They are not used to humans touching them and it can take weeks before they let me pet them. With some cats this never happens. I have two very old female cats (the only remaining members of the original cat community described in my book) to whom I have given over our beautiful pergola as they cannot live outside on the street, and they simply refuse to live indoors as house cats. I have raised both of them almost from day one, as their mothers had abandoned them. And yet both of them won’t let me touch them. (You can’t imagine the headache when they need to see a vet!)
Generally speaking, I find that there’s a difference between male and female cats. It is much easier to befriend male cats, especially young ones. I start by giving the male cat a name, and each time I feed him I call him by his name. Slowly but surely the cat lets me come closer and closer. Most times I eventually end up cuddling the cat! You also need to remember that in my case most of the cats in my community were completely dependent on me for their existence, and they knew this. The fact that I went out three times a day to feed them, clean the litter boxes, and play with the little ones also made me seem like an additional supermother!
Tell us about the new laws protecting street cats.
The situation of street cats in Israel changed with the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision of 2004 concerning street cats, known as the ‘Cats Ruling’ (Judgment 48884/00). The Supreme Court ruled that street cats have the right to live on the streets and that it’s prohibited to move the cat from its original habitat (unless the cat constitutes a serious health risk). People are also allowed to feed the cat as long as they adhere to certain conditions, one of which is to implement a TNR program.
It took time for people in Israel to become familiar with the new law. I’m sure that even now some people are unaware of extent of the legal changes regarding street cats, but almost everyone knows that if you find a cat in your yard, you can call the municipal veterinary services and they will send a cat wrangler who will cage the cat without causing it any pain and then take it to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated. After the procedure is done, the cat is return to the territory from which it was taken.
Israeli law also permits the feeding of feral and stray cats, provided that it is done in some secluded place, out of the public’s way, uses dry food, and cleanliness is observed. It goes without saying that any form of abuse towards cats is strictly prohibited and carries severe penalties. In short, then, the new law has transformed Israel’s street cats into legal citizens in our towns and cities.
What changes have you seen in how people feel or interact with the cats since the new law was enacted?
The new laws protecting cats and their caregivers brought about a great change. In my case, for example, my neighbor can no longer shout at me for feeding the cats or threaten to bring someone who’ll take the cats away (probably to be killed!). For a long time now I haven’t seen anyone kicking a street cat as he passes by the animal, probably because now such people know they can be persecuted for such cruelty. Also, more people who do not necessarily care for feral and stray cats call the municipal veterinary services to implement a TNR program in their neighborhood to reduce the cat population, and they do this knowing the ‘fixed’ cats will be returned to their territory.
How have these changes, including spay/neuter affected the cats?
Obviously, the number of cats has diminished. But perhaps less obvious to people unfamiliar with cats is the fact that spayed and neutered cats are less frightened and aggressive in general. Only rarely will a ‘fixed’ street cat jump on me when I open the door to go out and feed them. They are also in better health, especially the females, as they don’t have to give birth several times a year. And among males there are significantly fewer fights, as there are fewer intact females to fight over or intact males to do the fighting.
However, as the older generation dies out, there is no new generation of street cats coming it. With the absence of kittens and families, it is more or less every cat for himself or herself. They no longer form a community of cats with close ties between individual members. Many of the beautiful phenomena that I describe in “My Street Cats” are gone. But there is no doubt that the cats’ overall well-being has improved and that’s what ultimately matters.
You say in your book that you believe society has a moral obligation to care for street cats. Why do you believe that?
For centuries human beings have allowed cats to live beside them. Cats were useful when it came to catching mice, snakes and other ‘pests’. They continued living beside us when modern cities were developing, serving the same sanitary function. You could say that we tacitly agreed to their existence in our midst. This imposes an obligation on us to take minimal care of these animals. It is a moral obligation which exists even in the absence of laws to impose it. Street cats need us to live a decent or at least tolerable life. All that we need to do to enable such a life is to provide them with food and medical care. But once their basic needs are met, street cats also need love.
Giving love is not part of our moral obligation towards street cats. It is more of a ‘Mitzvah’ – a charitable act. I believe that when we are kind to street cats, we become better people. Loving creatures that often lurk in the shadows teaches us to be attentive to all suffering. And suffering is suffering whether it manifests in a human being, or in a cat. In short, if we learn how to be compassionate towards street cats, we will become a more compassionate society. Compassion is not something we learn through theory. It requires practice. And caring for street cats is a good way of practicing compassion, one cat at a time – one person at a time.
In an ideal world, what would our moral obligation look like?
In an ideal world, compassion for street cats would be implemented on several levels. First, each family would take care of one or two cats by taking them into their homes as pets. Second, each person or family would care for one or two feral or stray cats by feeding them, putting up cat shelters in the winter, taking them to the vet when needed, etc. In an ideal world there would be friendship and love between human beings and cats.
What else would you like to share with our readers?
I’ve decided to use the profits from the sale of “My Street Cats” to support research into Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). As you probably know, it’s a deadly disease that kills 30% of feral and stray cat population worldwide. Yet very little is known about it. My beloved cat Shnuki died from this a few months ago. Once diagnosed, cats usually survive for 1 more month. I managed to keep Shnuki alive for 7 months afterwards in good condition. The head of the vet hospital couldn’t believe it. So now, I’ve managed to convince enough people to start a research program into this awful disease. It is being set up as we speak, but as always the problem is funds. So instead of putting the profits from the book into TNR, which was my original idea, I want to help the research into a cure/treatment/vaccination for this disease that affects so many cats.
This is also why I need people’s help in spreading the word about the book to others. It’s no longer just about raising awareness of the situation of street cats and promoting compassion. And yes, caregivers and cat-parents will find lots of useful tips and helpful information about dealing with cat colonies and with the individual problems of quirky cats. But the goal before us is now bigger than that: we must find a cure for FIP for the sake of all our cats, wherever they are.
One thing that people can do is can print and post the flyer (with permission, of course) in pet shops, veterinary offices, animal shelters, shopping males, etc. The flyer is also available on my Facebook page. If each cat lover posted just 5 flyers, together, we could have real impact!
How can readers connect with you?
Thank you, Raphaella Bilski, for sharing your mission of saving street cats and your love of them with us.
Take a look inside the book and read more about Raphaella’s street cats here. Help support FIP research by getting your copy of My Street Cats. Available in digital and paperback formats.
What are your thoughts about the street cat law? Do you have a question or comment for Raphaella Bilski? Post it in the comment section below. Thanks!