Modern Turkish cowboys on duty during Eid al-Adha

December 14, 2008, Sunday/ 11:30:00
Modern cowboys wear orange jackets, carry dart guns and ride motorbikes -- or at least in Turkey they do. Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to give up his son, is commemorated all over Turkey with the slaughter of sheep, goats and bulls.

 Inhabitants of towns and cities as well as the countryside buy their animals in the weeks before the holiday, and when the fateful morning comes, they sharpen their knives and lead the sacrifices out to the place of slaughter.

Inevitably accidents occur, and when these happen on urban streets, the cowboys get called in. The cowboys are actually public servants, council workers and police, some of whom have had special training for the job. Lassoing and darting runaway animals, especially enraged and frightened bulls, is no mean feat. These heavy muscular animals appear to go to the pot in the most recalcitrant manner, and every year the papers report both escapees and injuries.

The new trend is to establish special teams of men and a telephone hotline (”Alo, boğa kaçtı,” or “Hello, my bull escaped”) to manage the problem. The teams were well advertised in advance in the press and on television, and on Dec. 8, their training paid off.

The Erzincan team is set up every year, and among the most professional, they take their work very seriously. This year they took over the local football teams’ training grounds two weeks before the eid started in order to prepare. The head of the council, Mehmet Buyruk, said it was essential to have a team so that animals could be recaptured as quickly as possible and with minimal distress to the bull.

Under the watchful eye of their chief, Ertuğrul Telli, the five men worked on their physical condition by sprinting and running hurdles. They also received instruction from veterinarians on bovine psychology. The chief instructed his men on the art of the lariat and how best to use dart guns. Their exertions may seem extreme as the team would only be in operation for 24 hours, but when faced with 500 kilograms of snorting, pawing and charging cow, it’s best to be prepared. 

In Kocaeli the team last year consisted of four men, one of whom was a veterinarian. This year there are nine men on motorbikes who rather appropriately, if ironically, did their training at the local abattoir. The Güngören council in İstanbul also set up a team and trained them for weeks beforehand. The six men on three motorbikes practiced firing their air rifles and lassoing at real cows while mounted.

Learning lesson

Engin Civan, head of a veterinary association, said, “We have had problems in previous years with recapturing escaped animals, so we tried to learn our lesson from that.” Samsun’s team of council law enforcers carried out similar duties for the fourth year.

In Şanlıurfa, a moment of distraction allowed Ali Değen’s bull his chance for flight, and he took it. Local men cornered him in Şirin Mahallesi and called for the crack cattle team. Upon arriving and looking at the enraged beast, they first created a barricade with their vehicles and then enlisted the help of bystanders to create a row of lassoers. This proved to be ineffective after the bull charged the line, injuring some men and causing others to scramble for safety behind a nearby wall. It then made off into the garden area of a nearby petrol station.

The experts stepped in and shot the beast with a sedative dart, and after an hour or so, he became quieter. But when the team moved in to tie him to a rope, he broke free for a second time and ran into the ground floor of an apartment block, where the special team was finally able to restrain him and hand him back to his owner.

In another part of Şanlıurfa, a bull that escaped onto some waste ground held the team at bay for more than two hours. Men that tried to grab the rope hanging from his neck were dragged helplessly to and fro. Eventually the bull was brought under control -- only for the special team to realize that during their exertions, someone had crashed into their pickup truck. Perhaps they could ask Erzincan to lend them someone for training purposes?

Part of the problem is the insistence of families with village roots who have long since become city dwellers to take matters into their own hands. Despite councils across the country establishing designated areas for ritual slaughter, people still buy their animals weeks in advance and then tie them up in their gardens.

These inexperienced animal handlers often not only injure themselves while trying to kill the animal but also often lose purchase on them as they try to move them from place to place. With fines for slaughtering outside of council compounds at only around YTL 50, the special sacrifice teams look likely to become a modern institution.

While cows in general are placid ruminants, bulls are a much different story, used all over Europe in spectacles of bravery and savagery. Perhaps these beasts have some prescience of their deaths that spurs their attempts at freedom. Certainly they will resist the unknown and the loss of control that being led around implies.

These doughty cattle that give their owners the runaround are obviously the more spirited of those destined to end up on dinner tables. Maybe if they show sufficient courage they should be spared like bulls of exceptional valor in the Spanish bullfighting ring and used as training beasts for the modern-day Turkish motorcycle matadors.

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