One of our staff members recently returned from a 3 week holiday road tripping through Turkey with her daughter. Among the many interesting things that they experienced, one of the sadder aspects were their encounters with the population of Turkey’s stray cats and dogs.
Here is her story.
Although most of the tourist attractions in Turkey are teeming with stray cats, and very often dogs (and goats and donkeys and chickens), nowhere is the plight of these animals more heartbreaking, than in Istanbul. A Starbucks and a mosque on just about every street corner was our expectation. What wasn’t was the number of stray dogs and cats.
Growing up in a city (indeed in a country) where the animals we mostly encounter are our pets, and where they share the family home, it is a natural instinct for many of us to want to rescue every stray we see, take them home, feed them, groom them, give them a warm, comfortable bed to sleep in, and shower them with love. It is a fact that the closest many of us come to street animals, are the township dogs we drive past, who are, very likely, quite well looked after.
It is therefore an alien concept to imagine cats and dogs, in the heart of a city, without a home. Or, to be more accurate, whose home is the street they spend their day on, lying in the shade of a doorway. Who’s bed might be a piece of cardboard in that same doorway, and who’s water comes from the constant dripping of a leaky tap.
This happens every day in our own communities; to people. They are there and they live this way because they have nothing else. We are aware of it, but we turn our heads and hurry past. We take more notice when it is an animal, perhaps because they don’t have a voice.
Our first day in Istanbul we encountered a German Shepherd, lounging outside a stained glass lamp store. People entering and leaving would step right over the dog as if it wasn’t there. The only person to pay any attention to it was the store owner, who eventually came out to chase it away.
Over the next few days, we encountered more and more of these dogs (and cats). Taking the Metro bus between cities became an exercise in counting as the number of dogs we saw sadly climbed higher and higher. They would run through fields, stroll along the side of the road, or hang out at gas stations (especially the ones with a restaurant attached). One day, after 6 hours on a bus, we stopped for a bathroom break and bought a couple of burgers at a roadside cafe. They were horrible. As a South African I always thought that even a bad burger was better than no burger, but in Turkey, these were really, really bad. Instead of tossing them in the bin, we thought we’d give them to the strays hanging around the station. Thanks, but no, the dogs wouldn’t eat the burgers either. That was either testament to the fact that the burgers were really awful, or that the dogs were not starving, and a bit more discerning. We began to pay closer attention, and that’s when we realised:
- These dogs were not mongrels (pavement specials as we call them here).
- They were in pretty good condition (their coats were shiny and clean, not matted). And
- They were not scrawny, but rather, they looked well fed.
They were also not vicious when it came to food, they would accept tidbits daintily, and they would not fight each other for scraps. All this indicated that these poor strays were not in the dire straits that we’d at first assumed.
A little bit of research, and visiting a couple of veterinary practices in the various cities and towns we traveled through revealed some interesting facts and stories.
Istanbul has a population of about 15 million humans. The population of strays (dogs and cats) currently sits at around 150 000. It is extremely difficult to measure this figure with any degree of accuracy, but that number is fairly close. Homeless these animals might be, but they also have 15 million owners! Beloved by the population who endeavor to look after them, these street dogs and cats subsist on rations left out by shopkeepers and store owners. In doorways you will find buckets of water and kibble, and in the evenings you can see dogs gather outside fresh produce stores, where they are fed with goods that cannot be sold the following day. When the sun sets you will see cardboard boxes, pillows, scraps of blanket appear in these same doorways. Restaurants become a hive of activity as the 4 legged population start to gather. Clearly food is in abundance and they know it.
This is how it has been for centuries.
In 1910, in a desire to “westernise” (and beautify) the city, the then sultan of the Ottoman Empire passed a draft law that would send all the stray dogs to live on barren Sivriada, one of the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Tens of thousands of dogs were rounded up, carted off and dumped. The island had no food, or water, so the dogs were left to starve to death, or to eat each other. According to folklore the dogs could be heard at night howling in agony. Many dogs tried to swim back to Istanbul. Many didn’t make it. A large fire in 1911 and a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in 1912 were seen as punishment by God for these actions. The exile of strays to Sivriada was stopped and the remaining dogs on the island were returned to Istanbul.
In 2012, Turks found history repeating itself when the Turkish government proposed a law that would see the city animals picked up by animal control and herded off to forests on the outskirts of north eastern Istanbul. Although activists protested, and thousands marched through cities, and the draft law was tabled, many dogs were still sent away. Today they remain in these wooded areas, where volunteer groups go in 3 times per week to feed them. Because this is done on a volunteer basis, they rely heavily on donations of food from pet stores, grocery stores and schools, but the costs still amount to around 800 euros per week to feed the dogs. Although it is the responsibility of the municipality to ensure the dog’s well-being, their only contribution so far, is towards petrol for the volunteers.
The government remains perplexed at the attitude of the citizenry, who insist that these “legitimate denizens” of the city have as much right as anyone to be there. Their ambition is to “globalize” Istanbul on the scale of New York, or Tokyo. Turkey is enjoying its wealth after a period of economic growth that has seen per capita income trebled, and spurts of urban renewal. Everywhere in Turkey can you see the construction of roads, luxury high rise apartment buildings, shopping malls, and the beautification of formerly ramshackle neighborhoods. There is no room in this vision for the strays who are seen as an embarrassment to the “Europeanizing” process.
But the citizens of vibrant Istanbul insist on the strays having a place in the city. This in itself is an enigma, as Istanbul’s human population is 98% Muslim, and the Islamic religion considers dogs “unclean”. Yet these well groomed and (mostly) well behaved dogs, not only roam the streets, but are looked after by the Istanbullus. In fact, not once during our 3 weeks in this magnificent country, did we encounter a single dog or cat dropping, testament to the fact that the citizenry not only look after them, but clean up after them too. They claim that these social animals are so intelligent, that they have learned to read the traffic lights at pedestrian crossings, stopping at red lights and crossing at green.
In the tiny town of Goreme in the Kapadokya region, we met an hotel owner, Ali with a little stray named Princess. He told us his story.
“I used to see this little dog by the hotel and give her food because I felt sorry for her. One day she wasn’t there. I went to look for her and she had just birthed 2 puppies. I took them home with the mother dog, but she didn’t want to stay and she disappeared again. I didn’t see her for a long time. I went out one night and I got drunk. When I left the bar I was attacked by two stray dogs and I couldn’t defend myself. Then this little dog came and she chased away the 2 dogs that were attacking me. I think she was protecting me because I protected her babies. That’s when i started to love her”.
Today, Princess lives at the hotel with Ali, who still has her two puppies.
In Pamukkale we met Max, a boxer who had become the Mascot of the hotel we stayed in. The hotel was very upmarket, so it was a surprise to see Max dozing on the fancy sofa’s in the lobby, or on a chaise outside by the pool. If Max decides he wants to spend the night in your hotel room, then he saunters in and makes himself comfortable, either on your bed or a sofa.
Tiger, a resident cat decided to move into our apartment in Fethiye. He slept on the sofa bed and insisted on a slice of anchovy toast for breakfast.
The Istanbullus, in fact the whole of Turkey, have their own reasons for allowing these animals to remain. Whatever those reasons are, it just seems to work. The Turkish Government now have a plan in place, where strays are picked up, taken to veterinarians where they are vaccinated, sterilised, (treated if they are injured), tagged & registered, and then released back on to the streets. In this way authorities hope to control their numbers and keep track of the existing dogs.
To read more about Turkey’s stray population, you can visit the following sites: Managing Street Dogs and Cats in Turkey ; The Behavior of Turkish Street Dogs ; Istanbul residents rally around their beloved stray dogs ; The Street Dogs of Istanbul ; The Wild Dogs of Istanbul; Turkey dogs – Adopt a Golden Atlanta ; Istanbul′s forgotten dogs struggle for survival