Cat capital Istanbul
What to do about Turkey's strays?

Turkey is well-known for its stray cats and dogs. They have found a place in society over many years. But recent incidents and decisions indicate they could become new targets in an increasingly polarised country. Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

In Istanbul, you can see cats everywhere – perched atop turnstiles at metro stations, lounging on ATMs, wandering into mosques or sitting outside markets – where they are usually given animal food, or, as Istanbulites call it, "friendship formula", offered by stallholders in small packs in place of change.

"Istanbul is the capital of cats; there is a unique emotional connection between cats and Istanbulites," Istanbul's mayor, Ekrem İmamoglu, tweeted recently.

The cats are accompanied by stray dogs. At parks, the dogs are to be seen sprawling lazily in groups or sleeping in kennels set up by the human residents of their neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood strays are usually called by their names, though no-one ever seems to know who named them and when.

Households share their food with them, too. Leftovers are placed inside plastic tubs or empty yoghurt containers outside buildings and on the streets. Recently, Istanbul's metropolitan authority launched a new project to decorate the city with permanent animal food bowls installed beneath trees.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Turkey, people feeding stray animals were allowed to go out to make sure stray animals had food to eat, while in the summers, the animals’ water bowls are always replenished.

An unwritten code

There is an unwritten code between Istanbulites and the city's strays. Most of the human residents love them and care for them – some, especially, because they feel bad about not being able to adopt them, either for cultural reasons or because pets are too big a responsibility to take on.

Stray dogs sleeping in a boutique shop front, Istanbul (photo: Ayse Karabat)
Everyone's dogs: neighbourhood strays are usually called by their names, though no-one ever seems to know who named them and when. Under Turkish law, stray animals are the responsibility of the local authorities. There are 39 shelters in Istanbul, with a total capacity of 16,700 animals. But this falls short of being able to cater to and accommodate Istanbul’s estimated 750,000 cats and 250,000 dogs

There are few parks where dogs can be taken out in Istanbul and flats are not spacious enough for dogs that may want to run around. Often, landlords and neighbours do not like to hear their barking, either. There are also some cultural obstacles to adopting dogs. A few schools of Islam advise against housing them in flats, with some even suggesting that if you touch a dog, you must perform ritual ablution.

"Some conservative circles are not happy about having a dog at home, because they are considered dirty. Cats on the other hand are considered clean. There is also a correlation with socio-economic development and individualisation. The more human interaction becomes limited, the more the gap is filled by an animal. When it comes to Turkish society, sensitivity towards animals is increasing, especially among the educated middle classes," says Veysel Bozkurt, professor of sociology at Istanbul University and a cat owner himself.

He has a point. This growing love and awareness have translated into many animal rights groups mushrooming across the country. According to statistics from the Interior Ministry, there are now more than 320 civil society organisations in Istanbul alone dedicated to animal rights and their welfare.

But neither these positive statistics nor Turkish society's love of animals mean that conditions on the streets of Istanbul are perfect for its many strays. They may not have enough food – or veterinary attention when needed – they may be hit by cars or motorcycles, or may even be subjected to cruel treatment, despite the fact that such behaviour is an offence under Turkish law.

The human(e) dilemma

But there is a dilemma here, as lawyer Ahmet Kemal Senpolat, a dog owner and the chair of the animal rights federation HAYTAP, says, "If we keep those animals on the streets, should they suffer because we are merciful, or should we put them down in order not to see them suffering on the streets?"

Man strokes a stray cat on an Istanbul street (photo: Volkan Kisa)
A unique emotional connection: there is an unwritten code between Istanbulites and the city's strays. Households share their food with them. Leftover food is placed inside plastic tubs or empty yoghurt containers outside buildings and on the streets. Recently, Istanbul's metropolitan authority launched a new project to decorate the city with permanent animal food bowls installed beneath trees

In Western cultures, when people see a stray or uncontrolled animal on the street, they would rather the animals were removed, because they feel helpless to do anything, he said. But it is likely that most of these animals end up being put down if they are not adopted, he added.

Under Turkish law, stray animals are the responsibility of the local authorities. There are 39 shelters in Istanbul, with a total capacity of 16,700 animals. But this falls short of being able to cater to and accommodate Istanbul’s estimated 750,000 cats and 250,000 dogs. All over Turkey, there are 255 animal shelters, with a capacity of 100,000 animals; again, these are woefully inadequate to deal with the country's estimated 4 million total population of stray cats and dogs.

Besides, argue animal rights defenders, these shelters are not suitable as permanent living places, as the bar associations of several cities have also pointed out.

Lawyers have decried the shelters as "death camps", where animals do not have enough food and have to live in extremely cramped and squalid conditions. The lawyers also point out that – by law –when the authorities round up animals from the streets, they are required to neuter them and return them to their location of origin.

But as Senpolat stresses, local officials prefer simply dumping the animals at their convenience. One senior local authority employee admitted to Qantara.de that animals are also left in other districts in order to get rid of them and not have them in their own constituencies.

Last autumn a video on social media went viral: a music teacher named Ozay Kaya was expressing his anger at neighbours who complained about a stray dog to the local authorities. "This is everyone’s dog… We are not the only human beings in the world," he was heard saying in the footage.

While some praised him after the video started trending on Twitter, others were more critical, voicing the opinion that stray animals were dangerous and should be put down.

Then, a few months later, in December, two pit bulls severely injured a four-year-old child, with the incident taking national and social media by the storm and dividing society yet again. In its wake, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered local authorities to remove all stray dogs from the streets and place them in shelters.

 

The debate became even more emotional when a stray dog named "Boji", who had captured the hearts of many and made headlines around the world for being a familiar face on Istanbul's public transport system, was put up for adoption following a ploy to get rid of him.

Up until then, he had been looked after by the Istanbul metropolitan authority and was free to roam the city as he wished. But now he was accused of defecating on a train, becoming the target of a smear campaign. Surveillance footage subsequently released by the local authority revealed a man planting the offending lump on the carriage seat.

Senpolat is convinced that if stray animals are neutered and returned to the streets, the problem will likely resolve itself within a couple of years. Then humans and stray animals will once again co-exist peacefully in Istanbul and Turkey can resume setting an example to the world.

As the Boji incident has shown, however, the issue will continue to polarise.

Ayse Karabat

© Qantara.de 2022

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