Jerusalem's 'cat lady' on the prowl in the Old City

10 August 2017 - 06:33 By AFP
Tova Saul, an Orthodox Jew, feeds stray cats in a neighbourhood in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 12, 2017. For more than two decades Tova has fed and cared for hundreds of cats, earning the informal title of the walled Old City's 'cat lady'.
Tova Saul, an Orthodox Jew, feeds stray cats in a neighbourhood in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 12, 2017. For more than two decades Tova has fed and cared for hundreds of cats, earning the informal title of the walled Old City's 'cat lady'.
Image: THOMAS COEX / 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".

In much of the Mediterranean basin, where winters are mild and open piles of rubbish plentiful, stray cats are ubiquitous.

Across Jerusalem there are more than 100000 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 US and has been caring for animals ever since.

Since she started counting properly in 2009 she has caught and had spayed more than 600 cats, while feeding thousands more.

Last year she says she spent $15000 of her own money on the cats, receiving back just $7000 in donations.

The municipality used to poison strays but that programme was scrapped more than a decade ago.

Saul, in her 50s, lives in a two-bedroom flat filled with five cats and six kittens.

AFP accompanied Saul on a mission in the Muslim Quarter on a 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.

Saul 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.

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 half-hearted apologies, they are released without charges, but by now it is nearly 2.30am.

Saul heads back to the car to grab her traps. For Jerusalem's cat lady, the night is just getting started.  

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