This dog appeared to be "supervised" by merchants on the street near our hotel.

This dog seemed to be "supervised" by merchants near our hotel.

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.

Bobbie, one of the Empress Zoe Hotel's 3 resident cats.

Bobbie, one of the Empress Zoe Hotel's 3 resident cats.

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.

Blue Mosque Dog

Blue Mosque Dog

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.

Two dogs dozing in the sun by the ancient city walls near Chora Church.

Two dogs dozing in the sun by the ancient city walls near Chora Church.

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 typical street dog in Istanbul.

A typical street dog in Istanbul.

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.

Street Dog

Street Dog

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.

This dog was chained in a park. At least he had a bucket of water.

This dog was chained in a park. At least he had a bucket of water.

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.

Hagia Sophia Cat

Hagia Sophia Cat

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.

Window dressing with a basket of kittens.

Window dressing with a basket of kittens.

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.

Puppy for sale at the pet bazaar.

Puppies for sale at the pet bazaar.

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.

Dog napping on waterside plaza at Ortakoy.

Dog napping on waterside plaza at Ortakoy.

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.

More information on the Turkish dog issue on


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8 Responses to Turkey’s Street Dogs: A Doggone Shame

  1. I was in Istanbul over forty years ago, and have recently wrote about a different solution in place at the time. See In Search of Lost Memories (Chapter 3). At the time, I thought it to be barbaric, but so is what dogs are doing to Istanbul now.

  2. Gayle Ataceri says:

    Your trip observations are completely different from what we’ve experienced living in Istanbul for the last two years. These dogs lead natural lives and bring vitality to our streets. I have yet to see any “wild” dogs here (although one friend who lives near a forest says she has seen a few). Where did you get the statistic that only a third are supervised? Did you photograph any of these “canine zombies” – because the ones in your photos mostly look fat and overfed if anything.

    We’ve watched these dogs all managing to find a shop, building, or street where they have people to watch out for them. They guard their turfs so that one area isn’t overwhelmed with too may dogs. “Dog ladies” go around filling up water containers for them. Many people take them their scraps (most Turks don’t have garbage disposals).

    Istanbul’s street dogs are gentle, sweet animals. The neighbors all know them by name and they help bind our communities together. One of these street dogs adopted our daughters. She stands guard in front of our apartment building with an uncanny way of knowing who is a guest and who is riffraff (she mostly barks at young men with a swagger). When it snowed last winter and it was unusually cold, she stood at our building’s door twice asking to come in. She stretched out on our warm floor for about half an hour, then pawed at our door wanting to go back out. She would be miserable stuck in a house all day long. These dogs have a real life – foraging and begging for food, protecting their people and establishments, romping with their friends. Having observed them, I feel sorry for our house dog who leads a relatively dull, sheltered life and is nearly always on leash outside (except when we have time to drive him to the dog park).

    I’ve seen an out of control dog situation on an Indian reservation in Canada but in Istanbul, the “Trap, Neuter, Return” program has been successful. The government is now proposing to round up and send all of these dogs to “animal gardens” which will serve as a death camps with dogs left to themselves in a contained area with no food or human intervention. I hope caring but misguided international opinion hasn’t fueled such a horrific “solution.”

    • Jan Devereux says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. I am glad the dogs in your neighborhood have some human friends. I do not believe, though, that a dog is happier or healthier living on the street than it would be living with a family in their home. Of course, no dog is happy stuck inside all day without daily outdoor exercise and regular socialization with other dogs, but there is a middle ground between imprisonment and homelessness. I didn’t mean to suggest that Turkey is alone in having a surplus homeless dogs; the US has tens of thousands of dogs in the “rescue” system, the majority of who never find loving homes and are euthanized. I took all the photos myself. It was winter so maybe the dogs looked more unhappy than usual.

    • Caryn says:

      Your experience was much like mine. Yes, at first it was unsettling to see the dogs and cats wandering around. But, once you look with a less-American eye, you see that they pets are owned by the entire community.

      The first morning, outside our hotel, I saw someone had put out bowls of pet food. Neighborhood cats were eating out of the bowls….side by side. No arguing, just slowly eating their breakfast. I heard a dog bark at the top of the street, and I felt badly for the cats as they were scattered from their bowls by four or five dogs. However, the dogs only ate a bit of the food, then left. Clearly, these homeless dogs were able to find enough food around town, and kibble was not enough to slow them down from their morning rounds. The cats cautiously returned to finish their breakfasts. It struck me that, if that the bowls of food had been found by pampered American dogs, they would have gobbled down every last bite.

      Lastly, the reason we don’t have homeless dogs in the United States is because all unwanted dogs are euthanized.

  3. J.Kelsey says:

    Well we went holiday to Gumbet in Turkey in sEPT 2013
    and I was shocked by the number of stray sad looking dogs.
    I did not see one shop owner or person give any of the dogs
    water or food, one dog tried to catch small fish in the sea
    but was unsuccessful. Gumbet is like clubland in the evening it is full of loud music and one evening a dog was
    sitting on the pavement close to the very loud music, someone had place a glass of beer in front of it, but it never drank, it just sat staring into space and you could see the agony and pain in its face that it was suffering.
    These dogs look unhappy, dirty and just wander like zombies I cannot understand how this country can just ignore these poor uncared for animals, I will never forget the look of that dog and would never go back to this country as they should be ashamed of how they treat animals for everyone to. Even a puppy was left in the sun
    all day in front of a restaurant tied up, it had no shade and we never saw anyone give it any water. Someone should
    visit GUMBET and they will see just how bad these dogs are.

  4. Chandler Carlson says:

    We spend quite of bit of time in Guanajuato, Mexico and so are more than familiar with the miserable lives dogs so often endure, whether confined to a rooftop or living on the street. However, we just returned from a trip to Istanbul and have to agree completely with Gayle Ataceri’s experience. ALL of the dogs we saw looked happy and healthy with orange ear tags and collars. It was just amazing and gratifying. There are obviously a huge number of caring people in this city. Unlike Turkey or Mexico, strays in the United States are scooped up, confined in cages and are eventually subject to euthanasia. Out of sight, out of mind. I’m impressed with Istanbul’s efforts.

  5. Just returned from Istanbul after my third visit (spread over 40 years) but my wife’s first and was impressed with the ‘Istanbul dog situation’. I suspect that the observations of listless zombies is based more on preconceptions of ‘street dogs’ than the reality of the situation. I am a great walker and spent on average 6 – 8 hours a day walking the various districts of Istanbul where I had close contact with hundreds of these impressive animals. Breed wise they are in the main based on Anatolian guard dogs and are probably the friendliest and most socially interactive (with humans) dogs I have encountered – and trust me having lived and worked in Africa and the Middle East since the late 60’s I know what I’m talking about. Not once did I feel threatened by any of them and to a man (or dog as it was) they responded affectionately to a kind word – or it could have been the bits of left over kebab, by nuzzling up and being stroked. Admittedly I am passionate about dogs, being the owner of two rescued Spanish hunting hounds (Google the ‘Podenco Diaries’- admittedly a bit out of date and needs updating)and if you want to draw comparisons about the way different countries treat dogs then just take a delve into ‘Podenco abuse’ to see what I mean. Istanbul is a supreme example of how to handle an inevitable canine problem in a humane and logical way. Forget the the ‘rabid, mangy, vicious hyperbole and make your own judgement.

  6. Anne Hardy says:

    I spent 8 days in West Turkey in February 2015,all the sites we visited dogs were roaming about. on our last day in Kusadasi I was bitten on my right leg in an unprovoked attack, what was stated by the local hospital as a starving wild mountain dog. It has taken until now, over two months for the wounds to heal along with several vacinations and treatment. A terrifying experience.

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