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. 

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. 

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.

That culling, too, took place amid a campaign to modernize the city, and was met with fierce resistance. The Western-oriented Young Turk government wanted to "Europeanize" Istanbul, and saw the strays as an embarrassment.

The government has even grander ambitions today: to make the city into a global hub, like New York or Tokyo. Turkey is riding high after a decade of economic growth in which per capita income tripled. A wave of urban renewal schemes in Istanbul and other major cities has resulted in vibrant, ramshackle neighborhoods being razed and replaced with luxury housing projects, while the former inhabitants have been shunted to tower blocks on the urban fringe.

“Strays are often seen as representing tradition or backwardness and associated with poor communities,” says Chris Pearson, a historian at the University of Liverpool who is studying the urban history of dogs. “For a city to appear modern, it must have clean, orderly streets, where shoppers and businessmen are not harassed by strays.”

In Paris and London, the tide turned against street dogs in the mid-1800s, fueled mainly by modern ideas of public health, but also by other factors, including the rise of pet ownership. But many people fear the changes are destroying the traditional social fabric, of which street animals are a part.

“Istanbul is going through a huge modernization, and in the new living spaces, animals don’t have a place,” says Tolga Sezkin, a photographer who cares for several street dogs.

'More humane'

Minister of Forestry and Water Veysel Eroglu, whose department is responsible for the draft law, argues that the proposal is more humane than practices in many other countries.

“This law does not aim to kill and destroy animals. Rather it aims to keep them alive,” he said, according to Turkish newspaper Sabah

“In the Western countries animals are killed in these kind of places,” he said, referring to the proposed "habitat parks." “For us such a course is not an option." 

The ministry also pointed out that the draft law includes measures that would criminalize the abuse and torture of animals for the first time in Turkey.

The bill has supporters. “There are too many [strays],” says Abdullah Yilmaz, who sells simit – traditional Turkish bagels – from a stall on Istiklal Street.

“I walk 50 meters from my home to the bus stop every morning, and 10 dogs follow me. They are annoying for tourists. When there is a big group of dogs I can see them get scared.”

The furor has prompted an indefinite postponement of the parliamentary vote on the draft law, but the street animals' patrons are already taking precautions against a possible roundup.

Two weeks ago in Cukurcuma, Mr. Ozcan fitted Chico and Hercule with new collars bearing their names.

“If they come and grab them in the night when no one’s around, they will see the collars and think twice,” he hopes.

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