More than 100,000 dogs live in the streets of Istanbul, Turkey’s capital, as well as thousands of cats. But it is the dogs, who have been a presence for centuries, who have lately posed a huge dilemma for the city. Last year, Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water proposed a law to send the dogs away to “wildlife parks” on the outskirts of Istanbul. Ahmet Senpolat, an Istanbul-based lawyer who runs Turkey’s Animal Rights Federation (HAYTAP), and other advocates protested and the law was tabled.
Draft Law 1599 was, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water, intended “… to make animals live. The aim is to prevent bad treatment of animals, clarify institutional responsibilities, and to strengthen the mechanisms of animal ownership.”
Animal advocates have argued that the proposed “natural habitat parks” are basically “concentration camps” for animals. Many stray dogs are already living in wooded areas of northeastern Istanbul where they struggle to survive, according to Deutsche Welle. Sending dogs even further away from the city is tantamount to a death sentence as “there will probably not be enough food, and the dogs could hurt each other when they are hungry,” says one volunteer, Semra Tecimen.
In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdülaziz decreed that the dogs should be rounded up and deported to Hayirsiz, an island of barren, steep cliffs in the Marmara Sea. Sivriada, a tiny island to which Byzantine rulers once banned criminals, made headlines in 1911 when the governor of Istanbul released tens of thousands of dogs there. A yellowed postcard shows hundreds of dogs on the beach; their voices could be heard even at great distances. However, an earthquake that occurred shortly thereafter was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure, and the dogs were brought back.
As Senpolat explains, Istanbul’s dogs are “social animals” who have long lived alongside humans. Some people put out food and sometimes a cardboard bed for them. The dogs (and the cats) also subsist on trash which residents leave out on the curb, though the advent of metal trash containers has made this more difficult. Some dogs are said to understand traffic signals and will stop at red lights.
Keeping dogs as pets is a relatively recent phenomenon in Turkey and those who do tend to prefer pure breeds (who are seen as status symbols) rather than dogs who live on the streets. As one (non-Turkish) resident of Istanbul writes, the dogs are “used to having people around, and even depend on them, but they don’t live directly together with humans.”
Even though the dogs are technically the responsibility of the local government, volunteers like Tecimen routinely haul scraps from restaurants and bakeries and bags of dog food to feed the many who live in Istanbul’s wooded areas. Volunteers also provide private veterinary care for dogs who are seriously ill, often at their own expense as municipality veterinarians only provide basic treatment.
Senpolat says that, rather than doing the local government’s work and caring for the dogs, residents should insist that officials do so. He also urges people to campaign for laws that address the root of the problem, animal smuggling and illegal pet shops:
Animal smugglers only face a fine of a few hundred euros at worst, they continue to bring expensive pure-bred puppies and sell them to pet stores. People often buy the puppies from pet stores, and abandon them when they become too tough to handle.
Without addressing smuggling, Senpolat says that even the law’s “strict neutering practices” will not be enough to keep Istanbul’s stray animal population under control.
The need to address the root causes of the thousands of dogs in Istanbul is all the more pressing in view of the relationship that has evolved between them and humans over hundreds of years. Simply consigning the dogs to somewhere else is no solution. Cracking down on smuggling and the illegal sales of dogs — and on owners who do not care for their pets and abandon them in the streets — will not solve the problem, either, but at least are steps towards a solution.
Photo via P. Gonzales
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