Turkish citizens last Sunday staged the largest pro-animal rights rally in history when a crowd of more than 15,000 people marched in İstanbul to protest a government bill seeking to make changes to the country’s animal rights laws, along with 5,000 protestors in İzmir and thousands more in 14 other cities, but the government seems to be unfazed by the strong backlash.
The bill, which seeks to make changes to Turkey’s Animal Protection Law No: 5199, has been like a heartless joke for animal activists, as it was created after the prime minister and representatives of the country’s major animal rights groups met last year, with the second group believing they had gotten their message across.
They couldn’t be more wrong. None of the promises made -- such as banning dolphin parks, or introducing restrictions to pet breeding and sales -- were there. On top of that, the bill sought to introduce many new and inhumane practices in controlling the stray animal population, such as collecting community dogs from the streets and removing them from the very streets that have been homes to strays for centuries, and relaxing rules on experimenting on animals. Animal groups, on social media, in petitions and during demonstrations, have said that not only is the spirit of the bill anti-animal in the way it has been theorized, but it is also disastrous in practicality.
For example, although officials say the animals taken off streets will be cared for at “natural life” parks, Turkey’s experience over the past eight years since the current law was adopted -- with shelters and rehabilitation centers, and the sheer number of animals on the streets due to municipalities consistently ignoring laws on spaying and neutering strays -- make such animal sheltering physically impossible. Or, another change, making animal cruelty -- currently only a misdemeanor in Turkey --a criminal offense, one of the demands of Turkey’s animal rights groups, is useless because there will practically be no animals left to protect. Regarding this point, activists also note that the bill increases the number of members on Provincial Animal Protection Boards by two, but the new members will be public servants and not volunteers. There is still no member of the police force, and no plans in sight of establishing units to fight animal cruelty in the National Police Department, which also raises serious questions about the government’s sincerity to implement regulations against animal abuse.
The law also includes articles that leave the decision of how many pets a person can own to public agencies, which many say is unconstitutional.
Naturally, opposition was strong. In addition to large demonstrations, and another march planned for today in Ankara, 37 national and international civil society groups including veterinary chambers and environment groups have collected signatures in an online petition formed as a joint declaration. Veterinarian organizations, rescue groups and individual citizens are against the bill, already commonly referred to as the “death law,” because it is bound to kill millions of animals. Even individuals who are afraid of dogs or simply can’t stand them have voiced their opposition to the law.
Veysel Eroğlu, the minister of forestry and water affairs, whose bureaucrats are responsible for the bill, tweeted in response to a message critical of the law: “We love animals. We protect them. This is the spirit of the law. Greetings to all.” But given Turkey’s already high rate of killing and no regulation on breeding even with the current humane law in place, how can officials so openly ignore the painful reality? This is exactly what activists don’t understand.
He also, reportedly, told lobbyists trying to talk him out of passing the bill in Ankara that the forests where animals will be dumped will be “fenced” so that they don’t run into the street. Activists really don’t feel that Eroğlu is on a different planet, but assert that he is purposefully being dishonest.
Eroğlu, who clearly didn’t expect the backlash, continued a minor public relations campaign last week, posing with his two kangal dogs to an Anatolian News Agency reporter. But even those who want to believe him most can’t do so.
“I am really no fan of dogs, especially the pack of strays in my street. But I sure don’t want them killed,” said Aynur Güven, a sales shop representative in İstnabul’s Esenyurt district, sharing her views on the new bill with Sunday’s Zaman.
But why is this law so unrealistic? Özün Kanbay, an animal activist, explains: “They don’t even spay and neuter in most Anatolian cities. For years, we have been unable to convince any of the municipalities in Kastamonu, for example, to open a spay/neuter clinic. They say they don’t have the budget. All of their districts hire men to shoot down strays. If you want to build natural life parks, you can do that with the current law. No municipality has done it. And that’s just not Kastamonu. We failed to make the municipality in Kastamonu build a shelter. All of their districts hire people to shoot dogs. There are other cities with no shelters, there’s Şırnak, Hakkari and many others. No municipality has implemented the current law: What natural life parks? This is a law being passed to ensure that there are no animals on the streets; it is a human-centered law that legalizes massacring stray animals and we don’t understand the reason behind the insistence, especially given that this is a supposedly religious government.”
Indeed, animal rights are in important issue in Islam, according to Adnan Koşum, a theology professor from Süleyman Demirel University. He notes that there are verses in the Quran and hadith that order compassion for animals.
Ignoring civil society, science
Although Turks have for centuries traditionally lived with their stray animals in their cities, there certainly are complainers. But experts say killing them all will not solve the problem, since they breed in large numbers and too fast for exterminators to ever catch up. The government has, however, ignored all reports from experts as well as environmental and veterinarian groups.
In a message released to mark Oct. 4, the İzmir Veterinary Chamber, a member agency of the Turkish Veterinary Doctors’ Union, repeated what needs to be done in a lengthy list. It said all laws are doomed to fail without making registration of animals with state agencies compulsory, restricting random breeding and sale of all animals, providing formal and compulsory training for animal owners, imposing serious fines for owners who fail to register their animals or who abandon their animals.
“The solution to the problem of stray animals is not placing them in rehabilitation centers,” it said, a fact that has been voiced by too many organizations.
The Veterinary Chamber of İzmir also called for making animal cruelty a crime punishable under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), and slammed the planned breed-specific articles in the law, in addition to many other suggestions. It ended its animal rights message repeating what most other veterinary chambers and professionals have said, “Our detailed recommendations about the law change regarding the above mentioned points have been relayed to all relevant agencies and officials by a commission which our chamber is a part of, set up by the İzmir Governor’s Office, but unfortunately has been mostly ignored.”
What will we do with our animals?
Among the thousands that walked against the new bill last Sunday were the members of Hayvan Partisi, or the Animal Party, whose message clearly states that they don’t seek to make people love animals. “Our purpose is only to bring animals which we hurt, ignore and forget in this human-centric word to people’s agenda.” Demet Esra Köse, a member of the Animal Party, asserts that the draft law will not improve the situation, but make it worse.
“We are a society that has lived with street animals for all life,” Köse says, opposing the idea of clearing the country’s street from animals. The Animal Party, to the contrary, wants animals to stay on the streets and improve their conditions. They call for stricter laws against animal cruelty, higher standards in rehabilitation centers and shelters, regular vaccination of strays and also improving the standards for farm animals.
Her point is relevant. Many Turks are panicking, not knowing how to save the animals on their streets from the “natural life” parks. Some social media users have tweeted plans to euthanize their animals before the state gets them, others are looking for places far off from the city to rent, but the fate of such a plan is also uncertain due to the yet-not-clear restrictions the law includes regarding the number of pets a person can own. The bill is already causing restless nights and nightmarish days to thousands of citizens who take care of animals in their streets.
Finally and perhaps foremost, there is a human problem in the proposed bill, another good reason why it should be withdrawn. “This is professional, sadistic torture Nazi-style,” said an activist who requested not to be named. “I’d rather put my stray animals down than give them to the state. I can’t believe they are doing this to us.”