In my last post (“Cutting the Apron Strings”), I was anticipating the mutual separation anxiety that my now eight-month-old puppy and I would feel when I left him at home – not alone, I hasten to add – for a week while I traveled to Istanbul. The trip would be the first time Eddie and I had been apart for more than a few hours, let alone overnight. I am pleased to report that we both survived. Speaking for myself, I realize that our trial separation was healthy. I wish I could say the same for the TV remote control and my husband’s reading glasses, both of which unfortunately served as Eddie’s transitional objects.
This being my first visit to Turkey, there were many surprises, not least being jolted awake at dawn the first morning by the Muslim call to prayer reverberating from loudspeakers on a minaret a mere stone’s throw from my hotel window. At breakfast that morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find three friendly cats lounging in the hotel’s cozy dining room; I felt right at home when one of them, an orange tabby named Bobbie, jumped into my lap and steadily kneaded my pant leg as I spooned pomegranate seeds onto honeyed toast.
Waiting outside for us, looking miserable in the cold drizzle that first day, was a teeming population of street and shop cats. Having visited Greece and Italy I was not surprised by Istanbul’s ubiquitous cats, but I was totally unprepared to see so many stray dogs. It is, of course, dangerous to make assumptions about a foreign culture based on one’s own biases, but more than anything else the sight of these stray dogs reminded me that I was out of my comfort zone in Turkey.
Turkey’s stray dog problem is an age-old phenomenon, and had I done my homework I would have known that the dogs’ plight has become a cause célèbre for the international animal rights movement. The dog issue has drawn more media attention in Europe than in the U.S., and has even been cited as an obstacle to Turkey’s admission to the European Union.
With 13 million human residents, Istanbul is one of the world’s most densely populated cities. The Association to Protect Stray Animals (known as SHKD in Turkey) and the World Health Organization estimate there are about 100,000 dogs living on the streets of metro Istanbul. About a third are “supervised,” that is, looked after to some extent by a de facto owner or a group of neighborhood residents; the remainder is wild.
A law passed in 2004 and enacted two years later requires the Turkish government to neuter and vaccinate all strays, and accords the dogs “resident rights” to be returned to the same block, with an electronic ear tag and a non-removable collar, after the mandated procedures. There is precious little green space, and Istanbul’s narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks are as clogged as Homer Simpson’s arteries. The strays have their work cut out for them just trying to steer clear of cars and pedestrians. When not scratching fleas, they pace listlessly or curl up tightly to keep warm. (High temperatures when I visited in early December were in the low 50s, but Istanbul will soon see snow.) They sleep on cement, eat garbage and drink from puddles. It’s hardly a dog’s life by Western, developed world standards.
By my highly unscientific survey of ears and testicles, it appears that compliance remains spotty five years after the “neuter and vaccinate” program replaced the government’s failed “catch and incarcerate” policy. Even now, animal rights organizations report that the municipal authorities periodically cull the stray dog population by covertly putting out strychnine-laced meat that the dogs consume, bringing on a slow and painful death. Mass dog graves have been found in rural areas outside of town, and tens of thousands of dogs have been rounded up and gradually starved to death in prison-like “shelters.” Research has shown that selectively reducing the population by either means (poison or round-up) actually has the opposite effect, because the remaining strays fare better with less competition for food and shelter. Not unreasonably, many Turks consider the stray dogs a scourge and a public health and safety hazard, so their mistreatment and abuse in shelters does not elicit a public outcry the way it would in other parts of the world.
Many of the dogs I saw resembled canine zombies, too dispirited to wag their tails, let alone romp with each other or to approach passersby, not even to beg for food (though scraps hardly went begging in the heavily touristed areas we visited). I didn’t feel threatened by any of the dogs individually, but passing a pack of six cruising down a side street gave me momentary pause. By and large, the dogs steer clear of people and vice versa. I consider myself a dog lover, yet I hesitated to approach any of them – they were filthy and their body language did not invite unsolicited attention or affection. In their aloofness, the strays reminded me more of cats than dogs.
While many Turkish people seem to genuinely like or at least to tolerate cats, the same doesn’t appear true for dogs. Some Muslims interpret the Koran to classify dogs as unclean, but at the Hagia Sophia a cat went unchallenged sitting right under the mimber (pulpit); I sensed this cat might be on retainer from the way he seemed to be striking a pose, cannily aware of his cute factor in photos. Cats help keep the rodent population down, whereas stray dogs provide no obvious benefit to humans. The stray dogs are predominantly large and shaggy mixed breeds; a 60-pound dog requires far more food and space than a cat, and their mangy looks don’t inspire tourists to cluck and coo the way cats do. And, it must be said, dogs poop on the sidewalks and grass, whereas cats are more discreet.
In the front window of the carpet store down the road from my hotel, the merchant proudly displayed a basket containing a mother cat nursing five kittens. The hotel owner later informed me, with a raised brow, that the carpet seller makes sure his cat produces at least two litters a year, knowing that a basket of kittens is cat nip for foreign shoppers.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of pet (leashed) dogs I saw in the week I was in Istanbul. One notable exception: on fashionable Istiklal Avenue in the New District, I passed a young Turkish woman leading a Pekingese dog costumed in a pink track suit complete with pants, but this duo looked out of place, laughable even, among the throngs of pedestrians crowding the avenue on a Saturday afternoon. Though Istiklal Avenue is lined with international chain stores and designer boutiques, I did not see a single store selling nonessential pet products. Safe to say, there is no demand for organic dog biscuits or Martha Stewart dog accessories in Istanbul.
I’ve since read that some of the strays started out as pets and were dumped on the streets by heedless owners. In the animal bazaar adjoining the famous spice market, I saw a few purebred puppies, stacked in cages near those containing fancy pigeons and a bucket of leeches. Rescue organizations report that it is nearly impossible to re-home shelter dogs in Turkey; almost all the dogs lucky enough to be taken off the streets by reputable rescue networks are adopted outside the country.
Of course, many Americans, myself included, leave ourselves open to ridicule for spoiling our dogs like surrogate children. If you informed the average Turk that you’d spent thousands of dollars on hip replacement surgery or chemotherapy for your dog, his head would spin like a whirling dervish. The Ottoman Empire fell shortly after the last sultan installed a four-ton crystal chandelier in Dolmabahçe Palace; ours may ultimately topple under the profligacy of spending precious resources on doggie daycare and vet bills.
Like homeless people in American cities, Turkey’s street dogs are a tear in the social fabric, a vexing social problem that resists easy solutions and forces us to reflect on our values. Inured to their suffering, we accord the homeless the fundamental right to live on the street, but in turning a blind eye we overlook how little comfort or security such liberty holds. The same might be said for Istanbul’s dogs.