Although many generations have come and gone, the howls of İstanbul’s stray dogs left to starve and die on an island in the Marmara Sea under orders from the Committee of Union Progress (CUP) government 102 years ago are still fresh in the Turkish psyche.
Little did the residents of İstanbul, who have shared horrifying accounts of sleepless nights listening to the agonizing shrieks of the dogs on the island, know. They couldn’t possibly imagine that what the Unionists started was going to be a continuous way of life for post-Ottoman Turkey.
Turks have lived in their cities with stray animals for centuries, and happily, according to accounts from many foreign and national authors and travelers. Although modernization has made killing the city’s animals almost a routine activity for municipalities, Turkey’s current Animal Protection Law No. 5199, still has the spirit of the country’s ancestors. At least on paper, Turkey is a no-kill country in dealing with the homeless animal population. But the spirit of that law is also going to change with a draft law, the content of which the government has not fully shared with the public or with civil society organizations.
Last year in January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised animal rights groups that torturing animals would become a crime under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Currently, it is a misdemeanor. A draft law making changes to 5199 was prepared by the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs, with animal rights groups’ initial hopes increasingly turning into dread and fear.
The secrecy surrounding the new draft appears to be not without reason. According to Zuhal Ardahanlı, head of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) Animal Rights Commission, several dreadful changes await Turkey’s animal rights activists and stray animals.
Not only that, the government will also not be keeping its promise of placing 5199 under the TCK. Cruelty to animals will not be a criminal offense. Ardahanlı explains that since municipalities routinely kill dogs, punishment of the torture or murder of animals would mean municipal veterinarians and heads of veterinary departments would be deprived of their right to a civil servant position, if they were to face criminal charges.
She insists, however, that the draft is not the government’s doing but the work of ministry bureaucrats.
This is not all of the bad news: According to the draft, municipalities will have the right to round up strays from the streets when responding to complaints. Currently, dogs have to be spayed and neutered and returned to the place they were taken from. Only in cases of biting can a dog be removed from its street and placed in a shelter, although of course, in reality, municipalities routinely collect dogs and dump them in forests to starve and die.
The draft also doesn’t introduce any restrictions on dog breeding and sales, which is the source of problems. Rather, it is centered on this highly profitable business of breeding, selling and then “destroying” the “surplus product.” Municipalities also have budgets for spay and neuter programs, but most of the money is transferred to other areas. Corruption at most municipalities and lack of transparency make it impossible for animal rights groups to expose this illegitimate use of the budget.
According to Ardahanlı and other animal rights groups, the new law also introduces euthanasia as a method of dealing with unwanted animals, just like in some Western countries, although it doesn’t use that word.
Yet another new change concerns the use of animals in experiments. The rules for experiments are already lax in Turkey. Many EU businesses are testing their products on animals, Ardahanlı said, because of this. With the new law, the rule that a veterinarian should be present during an experiment will be abolished. This means that testing on animals will be available to various industries with little restrictions.
Ardahanlı notes, “Our religion is against animal testing. [Islamic scholars] say that experimenting on animals is haram [forbidden].” Another change the new law introduces is that the ministry will decide how many animals a person can keep at their home, which she notes is an infringement on personal freedoms.
Like other activists, she says that spaying and neutering programs -- performed by the relevant ministries and overseen by a commission of academics and respected public figures -- and restrictions on the sale of pets will end the unnecessary suffering of Turkey’s urban animal population. “This absolutely needs to be taken from the hands of municipalities,” she said, echoing a sentiment voiced by hundreds of shelter volunteers across Turkey.
More suffering dogs, more money
But as many other animal activists note, the pet industry is a big industry. Every birth and death, every neutering tender at every municipality, every operation and every food purchase is money that goes into somebody’s pockets, whether that be a private or municipal veterinarian, a dog breeder or a medicine or veterinary supplies company that works with the municipalities.
Animal rights activists say the government is actively supporting -- and perhaps is and wants to become a participant -- in this lucrative cycle of death and suffering. A source who requested to remain unnamed claims that the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is planning to open a dog food factory, adding that this is happening at a time when the government is introducing new regulations to allow the use of animal carcasses that are normally not meant for human consumption. If true, this means that the municipality plans to use slaughtered dogs in the dog food business, which might be a reason for officials to continue the cycle of breeding and destroying.
Sources also say that to ensure that there is no debate on the law, the new amendments will be voted on in Parliament as part of a package made up of unrelated laws, a tactic to avoid democratic discussion.
Aylin Cumalıoğlu, head of the Ankara-based Çayyolu, Association for the Protection of Natural Life and Sheltering Stray Animals, told Sunday’s Zaman, “We understand that the amendment draft includes some provisions that do not meet the values upheld by the civil society organizations we represent.” She said according to what she knows about the draft, the legal change is an attempt at introducing Western-style “dog control” laws based on killing.
“Such initiatives that might allow the mass destruction of animals goes against our religion, traditions and humane values,” she said.
According to accounts from 1910, when the Unionists wanted to round up İstanbul’s dogs, they couldn’t find anyone to do the job. “No Turk wanted to assume this sacrilegious duty that would bring down a curse upon the Crescent. This is why thugs and bandits were assigned the task,” Pierre Loti wrote at the time.
The anti-democratic character of the draft -- the secrecy in which work on it is being conducted, and the obstinate refusal of officials to talk to civil society groups -- is a major problem. But if it passes, its implications will go further than that. Passing a law that has no respect for animal life -- and one, which, to the contrary, encourages cruelty to animals -- goes against our roots.
At the end of the day, this law might prove to be the most crucial transformation for Turkish society: Ultimately, the new law will decide what Turkey wants to be. Will we remain true to our roots, or will we adopt an imported money-making mechanism that will relentlessly slaughter animals for the “good” of certain industries? This is the decision the government will be making when Parliament resumes work in October.