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August 13, 2017

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Cat lover’s political conflict in Jerusalem

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 said.

The labyrinthine Old City, nearly a square kilometer and home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, hosts hundreds, perhaps thousands of alley cats. Across Jerusalem there are more than 100,000 strays, 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 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 said. “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, or being eaten alive by fleas.”

Last year, she spent US$15,000 of her own money on the cats, with just US$7,000 in donations.

The rest of her time, Saul, who is in her fifties, is a tour guide and Airbnb host.

The municipality used to poison strays but that programme was scrapped more than a decade ago, said Assaf Brill, head of the city’s veterinary service.

They rely on volunteers and Saul is one of the city’s most active — working in areas many Jewish people are unwilling to visit. She started in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, where she lives in a two-bedroom flat currently filled with five cats and six kittens.

Within a few years she has trapped and had spayed all the female cats in the Jewish Quarter.

Saul goes on a mission in the Muslim Quarter on an average night.

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 said.

“There have been a few times where they (Palestinians) have said: ‘What are you doing?’ And I explain to them and they look at me and they have these big brown eyes, these beautiful eyes, and they say: ‘Wow, thank you. You have a good heart.’”

She usually likes to work between one and five in the morning when the streets are deserted. This night starts earlier.

As she enters the Old City and sets up her baited traps three ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stop and stand by the trap.

Saul 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 said. “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 shouted.

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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