They have been around for centuries; ancient Ottoman texts by civil servants ruminate on what to do about İstanbul's growing stray dog population. Mark Twain, in his notes on İstanbul, wrote in 1861 that he had never seen such "doleful-eyed and broken-hearted stray dogs" anywhere else in his life.
Although Turkey has taken a more humane approach to stray dogs than most Western countries -- which is also the main reason why Turkey still has them -- mass killings have always been a method authorities turned to, despite the failure of this method to solve the problem.
Authorities in modern Turkey are allegedly following in the footsteps of their grandfathers, despite a law that aims to ensure that every dog is neutered or spayed, vaccinated and allowed to live. Hundreds of dogs in İstanbul neighborhoods go missing everyday, and little quadruped bodies are found dead in mass graves, apparently dead from poisoned food after suffering for days -- but municipalities deny having played a role in this.
Animal rights activists in Turkey, weary of not being taken seriously by authorities at home, have taken their fight to the international platform, where support for them is growing. Thanks to an Internet-based campaign against dog killings in Turkey, hundreds of people in İstanbul and in cities of at least nine other nations -- including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya and Australia -- will get together on Oct. 4, World Animal Day, in front of the Turkish diplomatic missions in their countries to convey their message against animal cruelty.
The support is most welcome and much needed by animal activists in Turkey, who have long realized that they need international pressure to bring authorities’ attention to the problem. It is not only that they stand alone in a culture with an increasingly growing but traditionally weak history of animal rights movements, but that it actually works, animal rights activist Tolga Akyıldız proudly states. An international Internet campaign titled “Turkey, hell on earth for animals,” aiming to get travelers to boycott Turkish vacations, has finally gotten a response from Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertuğrul Günay, who promised to increase “funds for dog shelters” in Turkey in an identical response letter sent to everyone who wrote to Turkish authorities as part of the campaign. “And we hear that, although it is not part of his ministry’s jurisdiction, he is taking some initiative to address the problem,” says Akyıldız (32), an economics major who currently co-owns an IT company.
Do your job, obey the law
A growing number of animal rights groups and associations can be observed in Turkey, and they inevitably run into the same wall of “the image problem.” For years, the image of an animal activist in Turkey was epitomized by Panter Emel, or Emel the Panther, a curious personality who appeared on television programs as an animal rights defender and whose educational assets and also sanity was often questioned by the majority in Turkey. But “there is a new generation of animal activists out there,” says İpek Ruacan, one of the organizers of the World Rally for Turkish Strays on Oct. 4, who is currently pursuing an academic career as a Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics. Today’s activists are young people with good careers who are determined to do whatever necessary to be taken seriously.
Most certainly, the sight of beautiful dogs left to starve in forests, such as those of İstanbul’s Sarıyer and Beykoz areas (both municipalities are labeled as notorious dog killers by Turkey’s animal activists) and the faces on dead bodies with an expression of immense pain are not for the faint of heart. But not everyone shares the same level of compassion as animal lovers. Ruacan has an important message for the less sensitive: This is not about dogs, but about upholding the principle of a state of law. “Everyone who believes in the rule of law should support this cause,” she says.
In addition to municipalities’ obligation to implement the law, according to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, if everyone did their job -- and neutered and vaccinated strays, rather than kill them -- the problem could be taken under control within years.
One part of the problem is that, naturally, municipalities deny responsibility for mass graves in the districts of their jurisdiction and blame neighboring municipalities for bringing strays into their territory. An official at the Sarıyer Municipality, whose mayor, Yusuf Tülün, has been described as one of the most fierce “dog killers” in the city by Akyıldız, said: “When we clean up dead bodies, they think it is us who did it. But we don’t kill dogs.” He added emphatically, “I repeat, we do not kill dogs.”
The fact is, somebody is poisoning these animals, and people who want to do something are a bit lonely in a country where discussions on animal rights are confined to pages of low-circulation intellectual or academic journals. Luckily, the increasing number of foreign homeowners is helping Turkey’s activists greatly. The World Rally for Turkish Strays is the brainchild of two British women, participating activists in Turkey say. One of them, Beverly Hills (52), became involved when she visited her brother’s home in the southwestern holiday resort of Didim. During her visits, Hills discovered that some of the stray dogs she had come to know and like started going missing. She launched the World Rally campaign on popular networking site Facebook when she discovered their fate. The rally in London, which will be in front of the Turkish Embassy, will have representatives from most of UK’s animal welfare groups, members of the European Parliament and even national celebrities participating.
In addition to calling on authorities to obey the law, a change of attitude in the Turkish nation could help, at least, to alleviate the problem. These “mutts” on the streets, the offspring of Turkey’s toughest survivors, make for great pets and friends. Although increasingly more Turkish dog owners are adopting from the streets or shelters, the ratio is low. “Turks are racist about dogs,” observes Akyıldız. “There is this craze about golden retrievers,” he notes. Dog owners buying puppies from Turkey’s largely unregulated pet shops and supporting the dog sale industry, unplanned breeding and getting fed up with the puppy after a few months only add to the problem. These abandoned dogs mostly end up as strays themselves. Murat Bekhan of the Association to Protect Stray Animals (SHKD), which campaigns vigorously for adoption of dogs as pets, says on average 60 dogs are adopted by people from Western Europe, while the number of Turkish adoptions is usually no more than 15. There is great room for improvement there, activists feel.
However, the greatest contribution to increasing animal welfare at large in Turkey lies in people accepting the fact that streets do not belong to them only. Although hundreds of thousands throughout Turkey appreciate the value of these wonderful creatures and feed them, a majority of the Turkish nation is afraid of dogs. The reason behind most stray dog - human conflicts is usually the fault of the second group. Nobody has to feed, care for or even like stray dogs. But it is worthwhile to try and understand canine behavior because those non-human souls have the right to live as much as we do. To this end, the SHKD has started an education program in schools, teaching kids about the “neuter, vaccinate and let live” principle and hopefully turning irrational fear passed on from parents into strong human compassion. Until then however, rallies for Turkish strays are likely to go on.
The rally in İstanbul will be held at the Kadıköy İskele Meydanı at 4 p.m. on Oct. 4. For information on adopting a Turkish stray as a pet, SHKD officials can be contacted at 0212-580 78 96 or firstname.lastname@example.org.