17 April 2014, Thursday
Today's Zaman

The death of a stray and Turkey’s animal rights movement

14 June 2009, Sunday /E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ
Timid, quiet and well behaved like most Turkish strays, an elderly dog who was adopted by a major hotel in İstanbul's landmark Taksim Square, where she had made her home, died on the first day of this month.
Her death, allegedly caused by human attackers who viciously and repeatedly kicked her in various parts of her body, caused a storm in Turkey's animal rights scene as well as in the national media, unprecedented for any quadruped in the history of the Turkish press.

 Ebru, who lived outside the Marmara Hotel, whose administration and staff have been taking care of her, her daily meals and veterinary bills, died on June 1. Initial reports, publicized by the mostly Turkish but bilingual Web-based animal rights' group Sahip Çıkalım -- Let's Adopt! said Ebru died after a two-day struggle in a veterinary hospital, where she suffered from acute trauma after being kicked like a “soccer ball” by thugs on the street in the Gümüşsuyu area. The reach of the group, which has been organizing on popular networking site Facebook, has grown so huge in the past year, Ebru's tragic death made the front page in some of Turkey's highest-circulation dailies, a first in the history of Turkish media, where animal cruelty stories are generally not found newsworthy.

 However, the publicity Let's Adopt was able to achieve through an Internet-based campaign was not without controversy. On June 2, the Marmara Hotel called a press conference, denying human interference of any kind in Ebru's death. Their statement said Ebru's cause of death was “respiratory failure” due to old age. Mourners were confused. Turkish newspapers referred to Sahip Çıkalım as a group founded by a “foreigner residing in Turkey” named “Viktor Larkhill,” completely failing to pick up on a reference to the '80s comic “V for Vendetta,” illustrating the adventures a vigilante named V in a post-apocalyptic Britain. (Larkhill is a village home to a concentration camp in the comic book.) Larkhill was also offering TL 2,000 to anyone offering information that might lead to the assailants.

 Sahip Çıkalım argues that the hotel, worried about the perceived safety of the Taksim area where it is located, made a poorly calculated PR move by denying the obvious and betraying a loved one in the process. Indeed, the hotel's statement was hardly convincing. The dog's pictures at the vet clearly show stitches across her stomach, indicating a recent operation that Sahip Çıkalım says she underwent after the attack, basing this on a first-hand account from the person who regularly cared for the dog and was mostly responsible for her visits to the vet. The hotel was also evasive about the whereabouts of the dog's body; whether an autopsy was performed was not clear.

Ebru and the new volunteer community

In a phone interview with Today's Zaman, the elusive Larkhill, a businessman, photographer, passionate animal activist and comic book lover, emphasized that despite the controversy surrounding her death, what Ebru achieved was something very important. First, she showed the power of the Internet-based animal welfare movement in Turkey with the media attention and the remaining suspicion cast over the hotel's statement.

 Larkhill points out that Sahip Çıkalım, which has been the target of much slander that became a bonus in terms of media visibility, has no vested interest in fake animal cruelty news. “They say we are trying to get EU funds. Would the EU ever think of granting funds to an Internet group led by a guy who uses a fake name?”

“The Marmara Hotel wanted to divert attention. They simply couldn't,” says Larkhill, due to a network of bloggers and dedicated people working online.

 Secondly, she showed the country something they already knew. “What we have created, Sahip Çıkalım, is a brand. We have 3,000 members,” Larkhill notes. Before Ebru's death, the name Viktor Larkhill probably wouldn't have rung any bells for the average person. Today, he is a mysterious hero, a mythical being who has made a stray's voice heard for the average newspaper reader. Indeed, Sahip Çıkalım is a brand, which, Larkhill emphasizes, is a grassroots movement. “More than 95 percent of our members are Turkish.”

 Sahip Çıkalım, whose members are mostly young well-educated people with good careers, is also the face of Turkey's changing and growing animal rights community. They found homes for 600 dogs last year, and this, in spite of a strict policy of not allowing adoption by people who don't already own dogs or who don't have a good track record in dog ownership.

 “What we want to do is to educate and inspire people. We want everybody's minds to change,” Larkhill said, summarizing the main purpose of the group, perhaps pinpointing the only viable and realistic way to minimize, if not completely eradicate, cruelty against animals.

 Ebru's death has also found international attention, inspiring artists, singers and performers to help the cause of Sahip Çıkalım. A British singer, Maria Daines, has composed and performed a song for Ebru. Another illustrator from a foreign country has offered to put his art at the service of Sahip Çıkalım's cause.

 In many respects, Ebru has been lucky. She had a good and long life, unheard of for many strays here. As can be seen in her last pictures at the vet, although her experience had been traumatizing, she probably had people whom she knew and trusted by her side at the time of her death. Thousands of others have yet to be introduced to our “humane” side.

 Sahip Çıkalım can be reached via their Facebook group “Sahip Çıkalım -- Lets Adopt!” Potential new owners have to demonstrate proof that they have knowledge of dogs and experience in living with them.

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