Seeing your car surrounded by a crowd of people, peering inside it and crouching down to look underneath it, is rarely a good sign, even in a small place like Malko Tarnovo, the only town in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. But this was what greeted the Vagabond team this summer, on leaving a 30-minute meeting.
"You have a cat in the car!," the crowd said with indignation, because the day was hot and the windows were up.
"No, we do not!," we protested and that was the truth. None of us owned a cat.
"Miaow," said a cat from somewhere deep inside the car.
We spent the next two hours searching for a car mechanic to help us find the increasingly distressed cat. Finally, a man extracted from the the bowels of the car a small, terrified ball of fur, about three months old. The kitten immediately ran and hid in the mechanic's car. It took some more time to find it, in the glove compartment, and to put it into a cardboard box.
"It is a Sofia cat," said the crowd that had followed us through all this. Life in Malko Tarnovo is uneventful and people are hungry for entertainment.
"It is probably a Burgas cat," we answered, as that was the last place we had stopped before Malko Tarnovo. The kitten must have sneaked inside, as street cats often do. How it survived the long drive among the moving parts of the vehicle will remain one of the mysteries that give sustenance to the belief in the nine lives of a cat.
That kitten was one of the thousands of cats that inhabit the streets of Bulgaria's towns and villages. As in a Where's-Wally? puzzle, you need only adjust your gaze to start seeing them everywhere: they climb into and carefully inspect the contents of rubbish bins, they hiss at domestic and stray dogs, they sleep out of harm's way on top of some wall, or tolerate a passer-by who pets them. They fight noisily during the mating season, they quietly hunt pigeons, they grumpily cross the street in the rain and they snuggle in corners in the cold. They all are descendants of proud and mysterious felines.
Freeranging cats flourish in villages and small towns where they benefit from abundance of gardens, rodents and humans eager to save dinner scraps. In some gardens the cat population is so high that the more you look, the more cats you see
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BULGARIAN CATS
Way back in time, big cats roamed what is now Bulgaria. Cave-dwelling sabre-toothed tigers terrorised the palaeolithic hunter gatherers and Balkan lions roamed the mountains. Both species were hunted to extinction, the latter as early as the 1st century AD. Two smaller wild feline species fared better. The Balkan lynx and the wildcat, or Felis silvestris, are still around although their numbers are declining. The wildcat also suffers from interbreeding with domestic ones.
The domesticated cat, or Felis catus, is an immigrant. It arrived quietly, leaving no traces in the archaeological record. Scientists had to study their DNA in order to conclude that Felis catus started to domesticate themselves when the first farming communities in the Near East appeared around 9000 BC. Farming meant grain and grain meant rodents which for cats, of course, meant easy food.
Feral Felis catus and wild Felis silvestris have interbred for centuries
When early farmers settled in the Balkans, around 6500 BC, they brought some of these cats which scientists would many years later label as type A. Later, type C cats (type B cats have no paws in this story), domesticated in Egypt sometime in the 1st millennium BC, joined them in Europe in the first centuries AD. The modern domestic cat was born.
The populations and nations in the Balkans have changed, but cats have remained more or less the same. The earliest bones appear in the archaeological record rather late for such a long presence. "The remains of cats have been discovered in archaeological sites in Bulgaria from the 3rd-6th centuries AD and early medieval sites from the 9th-12th centuries," says zooarchaeologist Dr Georgi Ribarov. "However, their number increased in the 13th-14th centuries, when they were present in almost every larger archaeological site, such as Trapezitsa in Veliko Tarnovo."
Cats also entered Bulgarian folklore. The precise moment has been lost in time, but we can speculate that they probably did this after long consideration on whether they should enter the house or not, while some irritated farmer was holding the door open, waiting for their decision.
Unlike Western Europe, where they were associated with the devil and dark magic, and consequently killed for this, in Bulgaria cats had an easier life. Their cunning made them the protagonists in fairy tales where they outsmarted much bigger lions and humans. Their intelligence, laziness and supposed nastiness and selfishness made them a common occurrence in proverbs. A family where quarrels were rife was said to "live as a cat and dog," but it was very bad when "the cat and the dog sleep together" as it meant that the weather was very cold. People having "neither a dog, nor a cat" were to be pitied, as they were dirt poor. Women were said to "hide their wickedness as a cat hides its claws." "Whatever the mice plan, the cat destroys" compared cats to people in power and "A cat does not fall on its back" was used for smart, cunning people. Bulgarians also made fun of cats because we all know that this gracious animal can also be hilarious and goofy. "Everyone has its own taste, said the cat and licked under its tail," they said and also "When the cat does not reach the meat, it says that the meat stinks anyway," a Bulgarian iteration of the fox and the sour grapes. One proverb is particularly good in catching the cat's proverbial (pun intended) aloofness. "They told it to the cat and the cat told it to its tail" means that someone is not bothering to act on whatever important information has been relayed to them.
One of the many masters of the fine art of seducing humans
There was also a cat creation myth: "Once upon a time, God was walking the earth and he stopped for the night. He had some bread in his bag, but mice ate it. God was angry and threw his glove towards the mice, and the glove became a cat."
However, cats still had a bad reputation, losing easily in the trustworthiness stakes to dogs. Bulgarians believed that in hell a dog would bring water to extinguish the fire under its master's cauldron, but cats would bring more firewood. Cats were able to create vampires by jumping over a dead body, while goblins would also take on cat guise, pestering villagers for something more than a cup of milk and place near the fire.
In Gabrovo, a town famed for its people's frugality, cats had it particularly bad. Warning: graphic content. It is said that Gabrovo people would cut off their cats' tails so that in winter they did not lose precious warmth when the animal would leave, then come back in the door, then leave again and then come back in again.
Bulgarian cats lack their Charles Perrault, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Alan Poe, Dr Seuss and Lewis Carroll. A cat is involved in the fairy tale about a group of humans and animals who pulled up a gigantic turnip with their united effort. Children still sing a song about early cat education that quite correctly explains how to catch mice. Under Communism, the book Tufo, the Ginger Pirate by Georgi Konstantinov was a hit.
Food for thought: having in mind the felines' natural talent for comedy, drama and bravado, their limited presence in Bulgaria's literature and art is kind of worrying
Unsurprisingly, the best known cat appearance in Bulgarian literature belongs to Ivan Vazov, billed the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature. In his 1885 comic novella Chichovtsi, or Uncles, – another graphic content warning – the dispute between two feuding neighbours escalates after one of them paints the other's cat black: "Last night after dinner, Varlaam, when he heard the evil laughter of Selyamsuza and his whole family, got angry, went out and hanged the fish backbone on Selyamsuza's door, while at the same time Selyamsuza was painting Varlaam's family cat. In the morning, when Selyamsuza went to his door with his many children, he gaped as the sight of the hanged backbone, while Varlaam and his wife noticed that the painted cat had rolled in their blankets and had stained their pillows and the silk dress that was lying on the chest. Varlaam and Selyamsuza simultaneously understood all, and the nastiest quarrel in the world between the spiteful neighbours erupted." Vazov himself had a dog. When it died, it was stuffed. It is now in Vazov's house-museum in Central Sofia, but let's not digress.
Chudomir, a satirist who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, had a cat-related entry that asks for another graphic content warning but we promise this is the last one. His short story The Black Cat is the exact opposite of Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat, as it is the literary equivalent of modern viral videos of clumsy and awkward cats, but with a sad ending. A beardless man called Tinko is extremely happy that he has finally started growing a moustache after he tried the boza produced by Nacho. But something else was the reason for the sudden change: "Wicked is this thing, black cat, born for mischief. If it crosses your way, your cart will break, if it jumps over a deadman, he will become a vampire. So, Nacho's devil stepped on the wooden barrel where the boza was and prepared to jump onto the shelf where there was some cheese. Good, but the cat lost its balance and fell right into the barrel. It drowned a week or two ago, and this was how its hairs decorated the upper lip of Beardless Tinko."
COMMON TYPES OF BULGARIAN STREET CATS
In the 20th century, as elsewhere in Europe, cats became pets free of the burden to catch mice, but while many were lucky to have a caring family to provide them with food and shelter in exchange for purring and being cute, many more were left in the streets where they bred profusely. Today, the population of Bulgaria's street cats is on the rise after a recent decline in the number of stray dogs.
While walking Bulgarian streets, one will meet several types of cats.
These usually appear in late spring and summer, the love children of unneutered street cats and runaway domestic ones, born in abandoned gardens and in the basements of old houses. Tiny, fluffy and noisy, they can be seen exploring the world, playing with their siblings and miaowing in distress on some tree, oblivious to the fact that Bulgarian firemen are reluctant to help in such cases. They generally avoid contact with humans. Life is hard for them. Only the fittest survive.
There is hardly a pet shop in Bulgaria without at least one adopted stray cat. They can usually be seen, well rounded and with shiny fur, sitting like Oriental sages by their bowls of cheap catfood unleashing the full force of their disdain on the world.
A store cat making the most of a supermarket in Varna
Cats can also be seen at all sorts of other stores and can be used as an indicator of the quality of the food sold there. Near Vagabond's editorial office, for example, an extremely lethargic cat receives food and sleeps in the doorways of an antiquarian shop, a small boutique, an optician's, a liquor store and a barber's. However, she is never to be seen at the butcher and the fishmonger. We tried what both stores sold and can testify that the cat is right.
Street cats tend to gravitate towards any place that offers free food, and the luckiest ones have their own restaurants where they are fed by both staff and customers. They usually sit insistently beside a table, staring intently at any human eating meatballs. Some have turned asking for food into an art form, from the telling gaze to the gentle headbutt on your knee to the paw stretched out to the table to sitting on your lap and purring at high-volume. The best manage to get a whole meatball without letting the poor human touch them at all.
If you want to deeply offend a restaurant cat, offer it a piece of bread. Their indignant look will be full of promises of some extra firewood for your cauldron.
If the cat eats the bread, it means it is really starving. Order it a meatball immediately.
This restaurant cat was not only clever enough to claim the best meatball restaurant in Bulgaria as its turf. It had the audacity to recruit a stray dog as a sidekick in its very efficient begging activities
One of the many cats living at a top spot in Central Sofia, by a luxury hotel, an expensive restaurant and several major government agencies
Wide-headed, muscular, with ears perforated in countless turf wars, their eyes malevolent and their fur ruffled, these are the kings of the streets. Only very, very stupid lapdogs would bark at them, the rest are clever enough to leave these cats to their business, whatever that business might be (it is definitely not robbing banks or stealing lollypops from children, but every inch of them looks the part).
Pet these at your personal risk.
Some street cats bring mystery into our world. One moment they are there, and as soon as you have got used to them and start saving dinner scraps, they disappear without trace, like some figment of your imagination. There was a kitten my family found at their front door one night. The kitten wore a knitted vest and smelled of perfume. None of the neighbours recognised it. It stayed with us for a fortnight, and then it disappeared again, probably because we took off its vest.
Street cats of all coats have the aptitude to hang out at most inappropriate places, including in front of walls with death notices
Here is another one. A friend saved a stray cat and decided to give it to her mother. The mother lived outside Sofia, so the cat had to be transported by train. Once onboard, the cat disappeared. My friend searched the whole carriage and the conductor and other people helped, but to no avail. The cat never reappeared. It is probably still travelling around Bulgaria in that carriage.
SOCIAL MEDIA STARS
Bulgarian street cats have a long way to go to before becoming as famous as their brethren in Istanbul, but some have risen to the status of Facebook stars. Tsonka is one of them. A typical store cat, she is embedded at one of the offices of Dobro Hrumvane Vet Clinic. Tsonka is to be reckoned with, which explains why the clinic had to put up the following sign: "Dear customers, please do not fall for the tricks of Tsonka the Cat. We do feed her quite well."
A ginger tomcat called Zlatin, or Goldy, adopted after he was found as a kitten in a cardboard box, rose to fame as the sidekick and frenemy of Bulgaria's biggest non-human social media influencer, Rumen the Tomcat, a philosophising, dyslexic British Shorthair with 43,000 followers on Facebook. Zlatin is also dyslexic. He recognises Rumen as the alpha-male, but he tries to change the dynamic. So far he is failing: Rumen writes books and recently penned the front-page article of the Literary Newspaper.
READY FOR ADOPTION
As the fate of Zlatin shows, street cats have fewer chances of social success than purebred pets like Rumen. However, when they get a home, they at least know what to aspire to.
The average lifespan of a street cat is two-three years, as they live in constant danger of dogs, malnourishment, diseases, cars, evil people and other cats. A number of pet clinics, NGOs and volunteers in Bulgaria work to find homes for such cats. "Volunteers who organise themselves on Facebook are crucial for saving stray cats. Fewer people in Bulgaria want to adopt cats, so we look for adopters abroad, like Germany and Austria," says volunteer and archaeologist Dr Anelia Bozhkova. "Volunteer organisations like Merciful Hearts in Burgas, Zoovolunteers in Haskovo and Animal Hope are engaged in the process. They raise money for vet examinations, vaccines, microchips and everything else needed to send an animal abroad. Hundreds of cats and dogs every year find a home abroad, but sadly many more are still on the streets." Other organisations working for stray animal welfare include the Four Paws Foundation and Animal Rescue Sofia. A recently opened cat café in Sofia offers co-working space inhabited by several cats that can be adopted.
The cat that sneaked into our car from Burgas to Malko Tarnovo could have been one of those, but thanks to his luck and stamina, Tony is now living in a house with a garden in Malko Tarnovo, taken care of by a lovely lady.
Saving Kitten Tony from Vagabond's car
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners