On the face of it, this is a story about a kitten barely old enough to open its eyes or walk. A wisp of a thing with matted and dirty fur that was discarded like a candy wrapper or a bit of stale bread in a trash can on an island off the coast of Turkey.
But for the local family that pulled the tiny, hungry, 2-week-old feline from the garbage, nursed it to health, and managed to bring it to the United States, the story is also about those who stepped in and helped make the kitten’s journey to Boston possible.
“This is really about humanity and kindness.” said Sennur Cinar, wiping a tear away from her eye in the dining room of her Jamaica Plain home. “It goes to show that there really are good people, wonderful people. It helps me believe that there is still love in the world.”
The kitten, named Bonçuk for its blue eyes (Bonçuk means “bead” in Turkish), was found by 12-year-old Boston middle school student Alanur Heidecker on a muggy August night on Imbros, a Turkish island in the Aegean. Heidecker and her mother, Sennur Cinar, were staying with relatives on the island and had gone on a walk to the grocery store. But before entering the store, Heidecker heard raspy mewing coming from the trash can and began pestering her mother to let her look for the cat inside.
Both Cinar and her daughter could be clinically diagnosed as “cat-obsessed” if such a diagnosis existed. They already had two shelter cats back in Boston. These cats and the unconditional love they provided meant the world to the family. Cinar knew if she and her daughter found the kitten, they would be drawn to it and unable to pass it by. It’s the curse of the cat lover.
“That’s why I initially resisted when Alanur wanted to look for the kitten.” Cinar said. “But then I saw her. She was dirty, but she was so adorable and so sweet. I knew she had to come with us. I thought ‘Oh my God, this is going to be our third cat.’”
Although she could not yet properly walk, Bonçuk had an impressive set of lungs and an insatiable appetite. They brought the cat to the vet, where Bonçuk received a clean bill of health. When they were done visiting family in Imbros, the kitten took the three-hour ferry ride back to the mainland with Heidecker and Cinar, and then made the journey to Istanbul.
“I knew I couldn’t leave the cat behind. She was so little. Something would happen to her. Also, we truly loved her. She was really special. But the whole time I was thinking, ‘How are we going to get this cat back to the United States?’” Cinar said. “I was very worried. I knew once we left Imbros with her, there was no going back.”
She found out that Turkish Airlines, the airline they were flying on their return trip, only allows cats that are 10 weeks and older (as a rule, nearly every airline requires that cats be older than 2 months to fly, and some only allow cats over a year old). By the time Heidecker and Cinar were ready to go back to the United States in late August, Bonçuk was somewhere between 4 and 5 weeks old. Her eyes were no longer newborn blue, but she was still too young to get on a plane.
They had come too far to give up on the kitten and were distraught at the idea of leaving her behind. Cinar called Turkish Airlines repeatedly (”I was a monster,” she confessed) and pleaded her case for the kitten found in the trash to be allowed on the plane. After calls to multiple representatives, Cinar said she found one willing to book the cat a spot on the plane. Bonçuk had a clean bill of health and a ticket to the United States. Even Cinar’s husband, Martin Heidecker, was ready to welcome a third cat into the family. What could go wrong?
Never ask “What could go wrong?” — because it’s a strong indicator that a dumpster fire is on the horizon.
Here’s where the situation deteriorated: Like many vaccinated US residents who traveled outside of the country for the first time last summer, Cinar thought that vaccination cards would be enough to get them back into the country. It was only when the mother and daughter reached the airport that they realized they also needed negative COVID-19 tests
Already short on time, they raced to get in line for their tests at the airport. Meanwhile, a bigger catastrophe was brewing. Even after Cinar’s tireless attempts to get the kitten on the plane, gate agents were not convinced that Bonçuk should fly. The mother and daughter were told the cat was too young. The rule was 10 weeks. Although Cinar explained they had been given the all clear, airline personnel told them there was no record that an exception had been made for Bonçuk.
“I started crying, hoping it would add some drama to the situation and they would let us take the cat,” Heidecker said. “But they still said no.”
The pair, now running through the airport, were sent to the customer service desk where there was a long line of harried passengers. They begged people in front of them to let them move ahead, explaining their dire situation. No one was willing to step aside.
By this time, Cinar and Heidecker were perilously close to missing their flight. Cinar was desperately calling family members who might be able to come to the airport to take the cat, but she was unable to reach anyone. With their flight fully boarded and ready to go, they were out of options. All they could do was leave Bonçuk at customer service. They were already holding up their flight. They left all of their contact information with the cat and were told if she was not claimed within three days, she would go to a shelter.
“I was just falling apart leaving her there,” Cinar said. “We took her from her natural environment, we were leaving her in an airport. What had we done?”
Once on the plane, the mother and daughter were inconsolable. What were the chances anyone would bother helping a cat at the airport? A flight attendant noticed the pair and their tears, and asked what she could do. Fortunately, the flight attendant was a fellow cat fancier. The flight attendant, Tuğba (she asked that her last name not be used), gave them Wi-Fi access so they could try calling relatives again.
Cinar was finally able to reach her sister in Istanbul, but didn’t have any luck persuading her to get the cat.
“Our family members are not cat lovers the way that we are,” Heidecker said. “My aunt doesn’t know how to deal with cats. She’s afraid of them.”
Cinar and Heidecker landed in Boston, still no closer to getting Bonçuk and feeling as if they failed the kitten. They were worried she would not survive in a shelter.
“It was a domino effect,” Cinar said. “It just got worse. All I could think was, ‘What have I done to the world to bring this upon me, my daughter, and this cat?’ But then it started to turn.”
Here’s where the story (finally) heads in a cheery direction and kindness and karma smile upon our mother and daughter protagonists, along with the poor kitten from the trash can.
Enter our first hero! His name is Ozan Ulasan, and he was working in the airport’s lost and found department. He came across poor Bonçuk in her cage. Ulasan had vivid memories of the mother and daughter running about, crying, and generally causing a commotion in the name of feline love at the airport.
Knowing her importance to the family, he collected Bonçuk and brought her to his home, where she would be out of harm’s way for the night. Cinar, back in Boston and unable to sleep, was calling, texting, and e-mailing for information on the cat’s whereabouts.
She was elated when she received a text from Ulasan, the airport hero, that Bonçuk was safe.
Here comes a second hero! A college student in Istanbul named Aleyna Ergas, who had previously watched Bonçuk, picked up the kitten from Ulasan and pledged to look after her as long as necessary.
Now there was the question of getting the cat to Boston. Enter hero number three!
Cinar and Heidecker had exchanged information with Tuğba, the sympathetic flight attendant and fellow cat enthusiast, who was eager to help in any way she could. She had formed a bond with the pair, and felt a responsibility to assist them in getting the cat back. Tuğba was planning to come to the United States for vacation in October, which was two months away. She promised to bring Bonçuk to Boston.
“Cats know when you need them,” Tuğba said in an interview via Zoom. “You take care of them, but they also show the same sensitivity toward you. So there is this positive energy flowing between both sides. I get that feeling from my cat. I knew that Alanur and Sennur felt the same way about Bonçuk.”
The plan was set in motion. Bonçuk would stay with the cat sitter (otherwise known as hero number two) in Istanbul for two months. Tuğba (hero number three) would collect her and bring her to Boston. But, as you recall, nothing goes smoothly when it comes to this kitten.
Cats and dogs, or cats and birds, are not permitted on the same flight. Also, if a passenger notifies the airline that they are allergic to animals, animals cannot be in the cabin. Tuğba needed to find a flight that was clear of any obstacles. Such a flight wasn’t available until the third day of her scheduled vacation. So she delayed the start of her vacation to make sure the cat would be able to get home.
“The cat was my priority,” Tuğba said. “It wasn’t about a destination. It’s about karma. I wanted to put something good out into the world. And this was perhaps one of the best things I could do for this family, and for the kitten.”
So finally, one night last October, two months after she was found in the trash can outside the supermarket in Turkey, Bonçuk came to her new home in Boston. A party with their new flight attendant friend ensued and went late into the evening.
Now, a very mature 8-month-old Bonçuk has recently been spayed and has the run of the house with her new siblings, Nar and Laura. Nar is OK with the new arrival; Laura isn’t thrilled to have another lady cat in the house. Bonçuk has gone from the dirty kitten with the raspy meow in the trash can to the adored queen of the castle.
“I feel like I got my second child back home, honestly, that’s how it felt to me when she came through the door,” Cinar said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Alanur and I couldn’t have done this by ourselves. There was no way. But when all of these good people came together, their combined strength was like water flowing. Without them it was a stream. All together, it was a river of kindness.”