Glen Johnson

Van Cats, a National Treasure of Turkey

November 28, 2018

They’ve got to be the luckiest cats in the world.

Their villa, replete with two dining halls, sits on the shores of a cerulean lake, mountain ranges jutting skyward in the distance. Silver bowls are scattered throughout the property, overflowing with cat biscuits.

Ladders afford access to cubby holes, lovingly kitted out with cushions and painted in pastel pinks and blues. Tunnels link indoor and outdoor play areas, male and female dining rooms. Feline guests, meantime, bunk down in the on-site cat hotel.

But that is not all.

The hundreds of cats living in this Kedi Evi, or cat house, have three custom-built swimming pools.

“These cats are very rare,” says Abdullah Kaya, a veterinarian who oversees the Van Cat Research Center, “because they love to swim.”

In the city of Van in Turkey’s easternmost expanse, a rare breed of cat is living large.

Snow white and with large, odd coloured eyes – one blue and the other amber – the famed Cats of Van’s numbers have once again been bolstered, after years of decline.

 “There was a risk that these cats would go extinct,” says Kaya, sipping tea in his office. “We established this centre in 1992 to protect them.”

The centre had a mere 30 pure-bred cats when it opened. Now it is home to around 300 – hundreds more have been sold or given away to new owners.

Tourists flock to the villa, greeted by a giant cat sculpture outside, cooing to the cats, which vary in age from 10 days to 20 years.

Their long vertical ears, protruding cheeks, round faces and silky white hair mark them as unique, says Kaya. But it is their affability which really characterises them.

“The build strong emotional connections,” he says. “You will never get the same connection with other cats.”

They certainly are friendly. A stream of cats in a central play area bump and bound, making a dash for the gathered tourists’ outstretched hands.

A young cat’s head pops up from a hatch linking the area to one of the living rooms. It races across the floor, clambers up a chair and comes face to face with a young child, then sneezes. One cat clambers up the wire fence surrounding the area.

Another, a stern look on its face, sneaks off to a litter box, where it scrapes away.

The centre is found at the local Yuzuncu Yil University on the eastern shores of Lake Van, a saline-soda and endorheic lake that has been central to various cultures over numerous millennia: the ancient Urartu, the Armenian Kingdom.

Now Van has a strong Kurdish identity.

Turkey’s southeast has been roiled by war since the breakdown three years ago of peace talks between Ankara and a Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks greater rights for the country’s sizeable Kurdish minority.

Van has been largely spared the violence convulsing this nation, although its tourism sector has suffered considerably, according to local tourism operators.

In that context, the Kedi Evi plays a significant role in buttressing the region’s tourism sector. A reported 20,000 people visit the centre each year.

Van cats became endangered through interbreeding.

“We monitor the breeding, look to eliminate impurities, by selectively matching cats,” says Kaya. “If a litter is born with impurities, we remove its parents from the breeding pool.”

The cat’s bloodlines are stored in a data base, and they are each micro-chipped. Cats outside of the Kedi Evi are even issued with identification cards.

Framed photographs – the silhouette of a cat admiring a sunset – decorate the walls. A small tourist shop sells cat-themed trinkets.

In the female “sleeping room”, a cat wanders up a ladder, seeking out an unoccupied cubby hole. Her claws dig into a cushion before she curls up into a comfortable bundle.

“They are so cute,” says Golshan, a 25-year-old Iranian tourist visiting the villa. “I want one.”

That may prove difficult: it is prohibited to take Van Cats out of Turkey, where they are viewed as a kind of national treasure. The Hittites, who inhabited Anatolia around 1600 BC, are believed to have revered Van cats, featuring them on jewellery.

“We do sell the cats to local owners,” says Kaya. “We want everyone in Van to have at least one of these cats.”

A cat with pink eyes sells for around NZ$100. If its eyes are both blue, then it goes for around NZ$150. The most sought after cat, however, has one blue and one amber eye. That cat – the prestige – will set you back around NZ$250.

“We maintain a database of all the cats,” says Kaya. “We arrange meetings for owners who want to breed their cats.”

The rugged, mountainous terrain around Van meant that these cats evolved to be fairly sturdy. Some myths claim that they swam to shore from Noah’s Ark. It is fairly common to hear locals talk about seeing them swim in Lake Van.

And they certainly are fond of water.

So much so that a local businessman even built three swimming pools at the centre, which they use to cool off during the searing summer months.

In the male “cat garden”, cats lounge beside a pool, or feast on kitty treats.

“It is much harder in the male world,” says Kaya, pointing to a scarred cat.

Almost on cue, a cat hisses, its ears drawn back. A paw swipes through the air.

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