I’m not certain when I became a “stray-feeder”. Maybe it was in India many years ago as I set out a picnic with a friend across the river from the Taj Mahal. I was passing her a sandwich when a white-headed crow swooped down and snatched it from our fingers. Moments later one of the pack of pariah dogs circling us darted across the blanket, taking with him a pickled egg. Surrounded by so many truly hungry creatures, we decided that fasting until evening would be more rewarding than picnicking so portioned out our lunch to a score of scrawny mutts with desperate, appealing eyes.
Or maybe it began one evening in Biarritz, France, when we were part of a group being entertained by a large slobbering mutt leaping for a cluster of balloons festooning a lamp-post. Each bound resulted in a bang and a gale of laughter. When only dangling, colourful tatters remained we humans turned to the serious business of our midnight snack. Wine was uncorked, bread sliced, and then came the moment we had awaited — the unveiling of the pate de foie gras. The gourmet of our party produced his pride and joy, the most expensive pate any of us had ever seen. We all marvelled as the treasure took center stage on the blanket. Alas, another, hungrier and more deserving than us, also marvelled in the background. Suddenly in a cloud of drool he barged through the hapless gourmets and scoffed the exquisite pate. As he galumphed off I realized that we had neglected to tip the balloonpopping pooch.
In Gibraltar Joan and I were adopted by a family of alley cats. They were spitting-images of one mother, tabbies with their right ear rounded and the left pointed. We happened upon them one evening
while returning from the pub. Encouraged by their friendliness, we agreed to meet next morning for breakfast. As usual with stray-feeders, we scoffed our tea and toast at the hotel table, surreptitiously stowed our sausage, bacon and eggs in napkins, then strolled innocently through the hotel lobby and onto the street to join our meow-found friends. Mother Tabby awaited us, and her yowls of delight assembled the entire family. Thereafter we met on that corner every morning and evening during our stay in Gib.
Bucharest was another interesting destination. Under the Ceausescu dictatorship, people were evicted from their homes to live in tiny apartments in enormous complexes. They were ordered to leave
their dogs behind. Unofficial guardian groups formed to look after the abandoned dogs so the government decided to employ “assassin squads” working at night to destroy the strays they had created.
Nevertheless, travelers were amazed to discover well-fed dogs lounging about all tourist sites. In Bucharest we were guided for several blocks by one chubby charmer with only three legs. The fourth, we were told, had been smashed by a car and amputated by a caring veterinarian. “Tripod” had become a publicly sponsored tourist guide.
For animal lovers there was one country above all that convinced us of the innate goodness of mankind. That was Turkey. Strays of all kinds were everywhere — dogs, cats, and birds. All were well nourished, and no one ever said “shoo”. Late one night in Istanbul a bus roared down an empty street. We watched in horror as a cat ran into the street to retrieve some morsel it had spotted. To the squealing of tires, the bus ground to a stop and waited for kitty to carry off its midnight snack. Our own bus driver often stopped, even on difficult hills, to allow dogs or cats to cross the road. He explained, “Our founder, Kemal Ataturk, said you can tell how civilized a nation is by the way it treats its animals.”
In Istanbul even the cats have adopted Kemal Ataturk’s dictum. Outside our favourite corner café a waiter and I were feeding scraps to a small family of kittens and their mother. When several other cats arrived to share the feast a huge tom, guardian of the local butcher shop, abandoned his post inside the shop, crossed the traffic-filled street and quietly supervised the division of spoils without taking a morsel for himself. Once the kittens retired with full tummies, Tom returned to his post at the butcher shop. We could all learn something from Tom the ginger Turk.
Joan and I have found great satisfaction from our attention to strays. Not all live in animal paradises like Turkey and Austria. We have probably fed a thousand strays during our travels, and hope to feed a thousand more. Some fellow-travelers think we are foolish. “Why bother to feed these cats?” scoffed one. “They are only going to be killed tomorrow by some car.” Said another, “There are already too many stray dogs in the world. Besides, tomorrow they will be starving again.” Possibly they are right, but I know how wonderful it makes me feel to help just one of these innocents get through even one day free of the desperation and pain of starvation. All it costs is a few pennies worth of pet food, or a few calories we can well afford to surrender. As long as Joan and I can travel we’ll continue to dine in alleys with the locals.