Hagar–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Had she better breeding and fresher food, I could perhaps have called her a tortoiseshell. But she was an undernourished, neglected garbage-bin cat, a member of the local feral tribe that lives off the huge green dumpster that stands in front of our 38-unit apartment building in Jerusalem. She first caught my eye one morning when I descended to the office I’ve made out of our basement storeroom. She was curled up in the crib on wheels that we keep at the bottom of the stairwell. My wife, Ilana, runs a small preschool in our fourth-floor walkup, and the contraption is what the toddlers hold on to when she takes them out to the park. The cat gave me a mean look, scrambled out of the crib, and was gone.

At the bottom of the stairwell, with its bars and its sheeted mattress, the crib-on-wheels felt soft, dark, reasonably warm, and protected. I kept a cat when I was a kid, so I knew that pregnant cats seek out such cozy places when placental hormones get into their bloodstreams. I made it clear to the faux-tortoiseshell street queen that she was unwelcome, and then made her birthing room uncomfortable by rumpling up a piece of plastic sheeting I happened to have handy.

Few cats in Jerusalem are pets, but the feral cat population is huge. Dumpsters and garbage bins are located on the street, and never close properly. So each one becomes the property of a feline community. The cats generally avoid human contact, but there’s a long-established symbiosis. The human population produces plentiful refuse for the cats and the cats return the favor by hunting down any rats so brave as to try to compete for the scavenging rights. At the time, our tribe consisted of six or seven cats, led by a muscular, gray alpha male with white paws and a scar on his nose.

He wasn’t doing much to help his pregnant concubine, certainly not getting her the prime pickings from the dumpster. She was scrawny and had the desperate, sideways gaze that I sometimes see among the borderline mentally-ill indigents that occupy some of the apartments in the dilapidated public housing project just up the street. Still, her choice of the crib-on-wheels certainly showed a kind of inspiration that no other pregnant cat had ever displayed before. I don’t know where the other dumpster’s other expectant mothers went to whelp, but presumably they found themselves crawlspaces or crevices of some sort or another. But it was March, and this cat was looking for something dry and warm. In my mind, I began calling her Hagar, after the maidservant whom Abraham sent off to the desert to fend for herself, nearly killing her and their son.

The neighbors got into the habit of leaving the outside door open. The apartment closest to the entrance had been occupied for many years by an ancient great-grandfather who was disturbed by the noise of the door opening and closing. So the stairwell was generally accessible. Over the next three or four weeks I frequently ran into Hagar prowling the stairs, especially when it was raining or windy outside. She’d eye me suspiciously, but stand her ground if I pretended not to see her. But the movement of an arm or a direct look in the eye would send her running outside.

About a month later, I returned from synagogue on Saturday morning and found a mess on my doorstep. Ilana keeps a large cardboard box on the landing, filled with old juice containers, plastic cosmetic jars, and yoghurt cups. Every so often she brings it inside and the preschool kids have a ball for an hour emptying the box, making up games with the discards, and putting them all back again. The box had been knocked down and its contents dispersed. I started tossing the discards back in the box when I noticed Hagar sprawled inside, barely conscious, with five still-bloody newborn kittens at her teats.

The birth must have been within the last half hour; Ilana confirmed she’d heard strange noises outside the door just a short time before. My initial instinct was to bring the box inside, but Ilana objected. She also pointed out that we couldn’t possibly leave the cat family on our doorstep. It would hardly be sanitary, or even safe, to have an untamed feral cat mother protecting her kittens against the curious two-year olds who came to our house five mornings a week.

I felt awful—Hagar was ugly and mean, but I couldn’t help admire her determination. Nevertheless, I gingerly picked up the box and started carrying it down the stairs. I had in mind a spot around back, a small, secluded alcove under a first-floor porch. But halfway down, Hagar woke up, stared at me in alarm, and leaped out of the box—sending two of the kittens flying onto the floor. I picked them up, but by the time I reached the entrance I couldn’t see the mother. I was afraid if I took the box around back she’d never find them. So I put it in the garden near the door. Some of the neighbor kids caught sight of me and wanted to see the kittens, but I explained the situation and told them to keep their distance until the mother returned.

An hour later the kittens were gone, but I was uneasy. Maybe they’d been nabbed by ravens, or by other cats?

Hagar disappeared for a day. On Monday morning I found her. Not in the crib-on-wheels, but right next to it. She’d taken over an old, dilapidated stroller that had been sitting under the stairs for many months, apparently without an owner. She was curled up in its tiny seat with two of the kittens. One was carrot-colored. The other was gray with white paws.

She didn’t leave the kittens for a moment. Her body, wiry to begin with, became emaciated. I couldn’t imagine how she could keep producing milk without drinking. On Wednesday morning I put a saucer of milk on the floor near the stroller, but as far as I could tell she didn’t touch it. I brought a piece of leftover turkey breast and placed it next to her in the stroller. She devoured it in three bites, gave me a dirty look, and stayed put. The stroller was beginning to stink and the neighbors were complaining. She wasn’t going to be able to raise her kittens under the stairs.

On Friday morning I found the kittens alone. Half an hour later I saw her prowling outside, but she soon returned to the stroller. In the afternoon she left them again, and I took the stroller out and placed it next to the dumpster. I waited until I saw Hagar heading back to the entrance and followed her. She paid no attention to me as she trotted down the stairs and made the turn. She froze in her tracks when she encountered empty space where the stroller once had been. She looked at me in alarm and meowed—the saddest, most desperate meow I’d ever heard. I walked slowly up the stairs and outside and she followed. But she wouldn’t follow me far from the doorway. So I went and got the kittens and let her see and hear them, and then walked with them slowly back to the stroller.

My cruelty had reason behind it. The spot next to the dumpster was so unsuitable for raising kittens, I figured, that she’d immediately have to move them somewhere safe. And having been twice ejected from our entrance, she would certainly not risk taking them back there.

But the kittens remained in the stroller for the rest of the day and the next day, their mewing growing steadily weaker. Sunday they, and the stroller, were gone.

During the months that followed, Hagar continued to prowl the grounds, often in the shadow of her alpha male. In early April, one of my downstairs neighbors went down to his storeroom to get a suitcase and found Hagar inside, with a new litter of kittens, perhaps a week or two old. She’d clawed a hole in the storeroom’s window screen to get in. I helped him lift the suitcase up gently and place it in the garden. Soon the cats disappeared.

A couple months later, I noticed that a new population of cats had taken over our dumpster. Hagar and her slipshod consort were gone, as was the rest of their tribe. One of the new cats, a sleek feline with an orange coat, began prowling our stairwell. Was he Hagar’s son? He looks well-fed and strong, and holds his ground almost until I touch him. I fear that he knows who I am.

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15 thoughts on “Hagar–“Necessary Stories” Column from <em>The Jerusalem Report</em>”

  1. “The cats generally avoid human contact, but there’s a long-established symbiosis. The human population produces plentiful refuse for the cats and the cats return the favor by hunting down any rats so brave as to try to compete for the scavenging rights.”

    I wish. I’ve seen rats hold their own against feral cats. The cats are so well fed that they usually don’t bother killing, let alone eating the rats. The rats are pretty big so they have to be eating something. Our feral cats are not doing their job. But yeah, nice story. Don’t think for a second that the Hagar reference was lost on me.

  2. Having three cats who are indoor and members of the family this story made my heart sink. I am aware of the cat situation in Israel and it bothers me whenever I visit. There seems to be an explosion of them and it could not be getting better. They are even in the Golan. They must follow the people ( settlements). On our last visit this Spring we saw they were everywhere on the moshav, also around dumpsters. Open a dumpster and a cat or two or three might pop out. Though they supposedly do not live long lives uncared for, they multiply at a mind boggling rate when they live like this ( in groups especially). I wonder about diseases, like distemper, rabies, feline leukemia- all of which we vaccinate our pets against here.

    Here also we have many organizations (Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals- ASPCA, Alley Cat Allies, Friends of Animals, etc) and many cat lovers who are dedicated to catching and neutering wild cats and ,when they can, finding homes for those that can be good pets. Though it is hard to adopt some feral adult cats- others are quite sociable.

    Our cats were all homeless. We got one very young from the local animal shelter. The other two we took incidentally from friends. Both were found.

    My neighbor takes homeless cats in. They come to her, they know. As a matter of fact she just called me today about two cats that have been hanging around here ( she has 6 already inside). She is going to trap them one at a time and have them neutered- then she will probably nurse them post-op, let them out and continue to feed them. I’ll put money on her taking them in come winter. She has done this for years. She has a sign on her garage door that says “Strays Welcome”.

    So maybe it took years to get to this state but we don’t have this problem here. A lost or stray cat is usually a found cat, not ignored, if it happens by. And you don’t see groups hanging around dumpsters.

    So it makes me sad when I go to Israel to see this and it must make you feel a little this way too Haim. If this was an allegory- I totally missed it- and will have to read again.

  3. I hear you Suzanne. Ever since the city health inspectors started visiting all the shwarma joints in Jerusalem more often, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the cat population too. And a significant decrease in the juiciness of the shwarma sold. So sad.

  4. Why this is so? I have no idea how cats are doing in the region generally. We did go to Sri Lanka several years ago and noticed that they had a problem with dogs and cats- maybe more dogs on the streets than cats. The cats did not look well either.

    I think the climate may have something to do with this too. In warmer climates the animals manage survive through the year- but not well.

    Also, one’s belief’s may be involved.

  5. A civilization is measured by the way it treats the least fortunate among them, including stray animals. Using that yardstick – what to make of Israel?

    I shared Suzanne’s revulsion at the sight of so many emaciated and uncared for stray cats in Israel on a recent visit. But more than that, the indifference of the people in Israel to the misfortunes of others not like them (be they people or animals) has caused some stomach knotting reaction on many occasions. Enough times to make me think about revulsion as a pure sentiment – often a spontaneous one – completely distinct from other sentiments. Some may dismiss it as a sign of the false superiority of the occasional visitor to a different land with differnt cultural mores. But to me it felt pure, not teinted by smugness (which yes, I can also feel – and don’t like – in myself or others). I latter remembered that I couldn’t even click on the headlines of stories about all the dogs and cats shot in Gaza by Israel’s consciensciouss IDF. I did read the stories about the animals at Gaza zoo that were shot for no reason whatsoever, and saw the picture of the donkey shot and dumped by the side of the road. revulsion is what I felt then too, and it was a very uncomfortable, powerless feeling. It felt unforgiving. On several occasions, I brought up these creepy incidents. No one ever acknowledged it happened, other than to comment that after all, look at how badly muslims treat their donkeys – may be it was better off dead (yes, one person – a very educated one said that). Mostly people were eager to changed the subjects – usually to some more acceptable unpleasantness that’s part of living in Israel.

    Eventually, I figured it out. The dysfunctional relationship of israelis with their cat (and to a lesser degree) dog population but one symptom of a population in moral decline. The image of the emaciated Hagar desperately trying to feed her brood at whatever temporary spot of warmth she finds – only to be banished because of, you know, the neighbours – is the picture of creeping decadence. The cats may be hungry as they are allowed to multuply without bound, and feed around garbage dumps, but it’s the people’s soul that’s decaying.

    The picture Haim put up of Hagar’s pathetic face says all it needs to. I think he must know……

  6. Maybe Israelis are worried that one day these a-miaow-le-cats will form a majority and vote Israel out of existence.

  7. My well fed cats, when allowed out for short periods will catch whatever they can: mice, voles, chipmunks, birds. I don’t think hunger inspires them though I am sure these are nourishing morsels for a very hungry cat. I don’t think a well fed cat will not catch prey… and maybe the opposite is true and it has more to do with the overall health of the cat.

    I know of two other people, related, that have taken in strays and successfully, in Israel. So Dana, I would not paint with such a broad brush.

    Also, friends in Israel, on a kibbutz where there is no explosion of ferals, have a cat, and usually have had one over the years, that they care for: kitty litter in the house, a warm bed at night, cat food on the floor, and a flap in the door to use to go in and out at will. They also had a dog they loved dearly.

    My relative on the moshav has attempted to take a stray cat in more than once, but in the end could not keep it- could not afford the vet bills, did not have the time to deal with that plus several children’s needs and in truth it seems like she was going against the tide of feral cats right outside. The dog adoption was also unsuccessful- not a good pet. The cat population on the moshav will be a real problem soon if it is not already- but the folks seem unconcerned.

    I am troubled, as Dana is, by the ability of too many ( it seems) to turn off feelings about other’s suffering in general and I do see that as decadence. Also I think I was suggesting that there may be a connection to one’s belief system- how a person sees non-human life, animals and our responsibility as stewards or caretakers.

    This is a problem for the government though- at least to take the lead on- and perhaps some money and attention can be diverted to this and other societal ills.

    Dana – I did download that picture of the dead donkey ( from the NYT) at the time b/c it disturbed me too- and thank your for the reminder about what happened to animals in Gaza during the recent war.

    Also, too, and as a ready critic of the US, and one who does not like to seem like I am saying we are superior- the people around this country really responded and worked or donated to rescuing the animals from our Hurricane Katrina disaster.


  8. There are feral cats, and then there are abandoned cats. We have 2 cats (one adopted, one found on the street, starving, as a kitten) and 2 dogs (one inherited from adult child, one found on the street, starving, as a puppy). Some people have a revulsion againt animals–I think its cultural since it seems to manifest itself mostly in Arab and Mitzrachi acquaintances. But then there are also a lot of people who adopt animals, as we have, or work to find homes for them. There are also people I know who don’t want a cat in their home but happily feed the not-so-feral-cat that lives in their backyard. Its not clear who has adopted whom in that case.

    It’s not just the rats. Our adopted backyard cat kills snakes, also.

  9. Suzanne – thanks for the response. BTW, I did not mean to imply that israel does not have its share of good people who look after animals, adopt animals and generally advocate for animal welfare. In fact, during my last trip I visited a lady who is a known advocate for humane ways of confronting and dealing with the problem of strays, and runs and adoption program and is also trying to raise funding for a spay-and-neuter program in conjunction with local animal shelters. Against great indifference, I should say – by her own words – though she did seem to be making some inroads.

    As you noted also, the issue I took was with the general climate of apathy I found through much of israel. people seemed to have kind of retreated into selective shells-of-caring – the only about these – and not about those. – mentality. When asked, they would say something to the effect that their reservoirs of caring are depleted. There’s the family, the extended family, the havura, the old army buddies , a few friends. There seems to be little room for the stranger, the foreign worker, or the stray animal, even when they have a pet of their own (usually a dog). Underlying it all was a great cynicism – pretty much about everything – politics, the world, the prospects for peace, the secular/religious divide, mad ugly development in their own cities. i also found people ( a generality again here – there were notable exceptions) to be strangely incurious about the world outside. And I often observed that curiosity, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit go hand in hand.

    That’s the condition I was lamenting. because these are symptoms of a society withdrawing into itself. And that can’t possibly be good for any future prospects of settling the conflict. The people just seem to have stopped believing, and there was like a whiff of sadness hovering over everything. That is, until I mention obama. Then everyone gets angry. Oh well….maybe next year I think I’ll only go as far as greece?

  10. I don’t think the existence of the feral cat population is a sign of increasing Israeli decadence or lack of caring. I noticed lots of stray cats when I first lived in Israel in 1987. In fact, I co-counseled with a woman who had a very kind heart and had taken in many (too many!) feral cats. I don’t think this is a problem, however, that can be solved by individual action, because it’s too big for kind-hearted individuals to solve. I think first it would be necessary to figure out how the problem has developed, and then figure out a scientific way to solve it. Were there stray cats everywhere a hundred years ago in Palestine? Is this something that developed after the establishment of the state of Israel? Is there a similar problem in other Middle Eastern countries, like Jordan or Egypt? One animal problem I have not noticed in Israel is stray (ownerless) dogs, nor did this seem to be a problem in the late 1980s either. What are the environmental as well as cultural factors that permit the growth of a feral cat population? How have other countries dealt with this problem? I live in Ithaca, New York, where I have heard there are some feral cat colonies, but I suspect it would be impossible for such a large feral cat population to develop because it gets so cold in the winter. Another thing is that there aren’t the large open dumpsters all around for the cats to feed in. One solution that occurs to me is possibly abolishing the dumpsters and instituting a new way of collecting the trash – so that people would put out their trash on the relevant day or days each week instead of leaving it in the dumpsters to be collected. When did this way of collecting garbage develop? I think there are probably many factors that lead to such a large feral cat population, and that it’s more fruitful to figure out what they are than to bemoan the moral decline of Israelis.

  11. Rebecca- I admire your approach to the problem: paying attention that there IS a problem and understanding how it developed and how it is promoted or exacerbated by certain practices or attitudes. I think first is the awareness that this is a problem- for the cats, for humans. That’s the big hump. Otherwise people just look the other way and deal- they say this is the way it is. If the cats were rabid- it would be another story. I think what I and maybe Dana were getting at is how one sees animals- domestic ones, and our obligation towards them. My grandmother had a cat she fed to keep around for the mice and the rats. That’s a totally different way of looking at a cat than one that you would keep for a pet. Still either way- there should be some responsibility for the animals that serve us one way or another.

    I think the problem has grown so large in places that group or state action is necessary. I would bet that an American humane organization would be interested in helping- and that veterinarians would also help ( to neuter). The long the problem festers- the more daunting the task will be…. like the settlements.

  12. I think it is inhumane not to take better care of the animals around you. All my cats have been strays and they’ve all become cuddlers. Hagar was trying to make a connection. If you fed her, and got closer and closer by the day, she’d’ve become calmer. Someone should take in those cats and there should be government-run no-kill shelters. I am not blaming any individual — when the group acts this way, the question is not whose fault, but how did this start? It’s heartless which is a word I never like to associate with Israel, although it becomes increasingly appropriate.

  13. Floraine, I’ve been noticing this term “no-kill shelter” a lot lately, probably related to having adopted a retired guide dog and having done some reading on pet rescues. The assumption seems to be that no-kill = better. While no-kill is consistent with pacifism, what makes it a better solution than euthanizing a cat or dog for whom a home hasn’t been found in a reasonable period of time? Dogs particularly are not part of any eco-system or food chain, so I have no problem with “putting them down”. I also have no problem trapping and killing hordes of feral cats. Once creatures’ numbers are out of control and a pestilence, no natural balance is being disrupted by killing them, as long as the means used don’t harm other creatures a la DDT. So what’s superior about no-kill? Should we really keep on feeding and caring for our overpopulations of domesticated pets?

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