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Istanbul residents rally around their beloved stray dogs

As part of Istanbul's modernization push, the government wants to kick its dogs off the streets and into parks. Some city residents are howling. 

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / October 31, 2012


Few aspects of Istanbul's government-driven gentrification efforts have caused as much angst as a scheme to do away with the city's legions of stray dogs and cats. 

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In recent weeks, several thousand people have marched through Istanbul and other Turkish cities in protest of a draft law that envisions the rounding up and relocation of stray animals to specially created "natural habitat parks."

The law pits efforts to revamp the booming city against a mind-set that remains strong within older districts, where street animals are seen as legitimate denizens of the city.

"These are the neighborhood's dogs," says Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan, as he sits with Chico, an elderly Alsatian, and Hercule, his younger, rust-colored companion, two strays that reside near his clothing shop in the neighborhood of Cukurcuma.

"They protect us and everyone loves them."

The government has expressed bafflement at the resistance, insisting its aim is to protect strays from the danger and hunger they face on the streets.

Authorities say the dogs and cats will be fed and cared for at the new "habitat parks" situated on city outskirts, where they will be visited by schoolchildren and available for adoption.

"The proposed law aims to make animals live," the Ministry of Forestry and Water, which drafted the bill, said in a statement last month. "The aim is to prevent bad treatment of animals, clarify institutional responsibilities, and to strengthen the mechanisms of animal ownership.”

Currently Turkey's strays are rounded up by municipal authorities, who generally vaccinate and spay or neuter them before releasing them back onto the streets with ear tags.

Animal rights activists are suspicious of government motives.

“The intention is to massacre these animals in a place where people will not see it,” says Emel Yildiz, a film actress and one of Turkey’s most prominent animal rights activists.

A support network for strays

Street animals have been a part of Turkish culture for generations, and many Istanbul residents believe they have as much right to inhabit the streets as people.

In the central Beyoglu district, a shopping and nightlife hub popular with tourists, stray dogs and cats are a fixture of the crowded, narrow streets. They are fed and often groomed by local businesses and residents. Some even become local celebrities.

One such character is Nazli, an obese Rottweiler mongrel who spends her days waddling between cafes, butcher shops, and fishmongers off Istiklal, the city’s busiest shopping street.

“Everyone loves her,” says Kubilay Bircan a cafe worker on Hazzo Pulo Passage, where Nazli often sleeps at night. “The shopkeepers feed her with different things: fish and meat mainly. We all take care of her,” he says.

Four years ago, local tradesmen, concerned about the length of her toenails, wrestled Nazli to the ground so a veterinarian could clip them, recalls Rita Cindoyan, a shopkeeper in the passage. “You couldn’t just take [Nazli] to a new place because she has been here all her life and she is looked after,” she says.

At the Coskun butcher shop in the nearby fish bazaar, where Nazli is better known as Zehra, manager Ibrahim Ersoy is blunt about the proposed law.

“We would not let it happen,” he said. “In our language we have a saying that the one who doesn’t love animals can’t love people.” 


Opponents of the latest scheme see echoes of the "Great Dog Massacre of 1910," an event embedded in the city’s folklore. Ottoman authorities rounded up most of Istanbul’s 60,000 stray dogs and dumped them on the deserted island of Sivriada, a tooth of rock that lies in the nearby Marmara Sea. The dogs slowly starved to death.


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