Photo: Unsplash/Judit Imre
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When I moved to Turkey for my first job, I tried hard to learn as much as I could and familiarize myself with my new home. One mystery, however, left me puzzled for months.
Like most every city in the world, Samsun, Turkey had its share of stray animals. I would see small groups of thin and dusty stray dogs trotting around everywhere from the beach to the city center. I would see them cozying up against the walls of shops to get some protection from the weather and rummaging through garbage bags before the dump trucks came.
But the detail about them that I found most peculiar was that they all had large plastic tags in their ears.
It was quite obvious that they were strays and fending for themselves, yet someone had gone to the trouble to tag them. There were few people around me at the time who could speak English. I questioned my fellow English teacher about these dogs and her reply was not very descriptive. All she could really tell me was they were “municipality dogs.”
Finally, I turned to that bottomless pit of knowledge known as the internet in an attempt to discover why stray dogs in Turkey were all bearers of these distinctive plastic tags. And as I sat there in front of my computer, a fascinating tale unfolded.
The saga of the modern day Turkish street dog can be traced all the way back to 1910. That year, the government of Istanbul sought to conform the city to a Western standard of modernization by rounding up its population of street dogs and “deporting” them to a small, deserted island off the coast. These agents of modernization saw these dogs as representative of uncleanliness and backwardness.
However, the more traditional segments of Istanbul society resisted this “cleanse.” Lower income residents had a rapport with these creatures, a rapport that can still be seen to this day, in which they provided food and the dogs acted as an alarm system in return. Turkish folklore also told that it was bad luck to remove dogs from a community.
Despite this dissent from elements of the population, about 80,000 Istanbul street dogs were rounded up and shipped off to the island of Sivriada. All of the dogs died of thirst, starvation, drowning or tearing each other apart. Stories are still told about the sound of the dogs howling and cannibalizing each other being heard throughout the city.
Not long afterwards, an earthquake struck. This, for already superstitious locals, was confirmation of the folklore that when dogs are harmed disaster will strike.
The story is not just gruesome, it left a permanent mark in Turkey’s historical memory. Because the deportation was done in an effort to make the city more desirable to Westerners, from then on, an assault on Turkey’s street dogs would forever be equated with an assault on Turkish cultural sovereignty.
For the next several decades, the official policy towards street dogs didn’t improve much. The government treated them, more or less, like diseased pests.
Then, a movement began. Animal rights groups started to pop up. The government became more receptive to public opinion. Awareness increased. And as awareness increased, so did public outrage towards the government’s practice of killing stray dogs indiscriminately. The outrage grew and grew until finally, in the early 2000s, the government was forced to reconsider its policy.
But there was a problem. The Western model of putting stray animals in shelters, attempting to adopt them out, and euthanizing them if they couldn’t be adopted was not feasible.
While the majority of Turkish people are at least tolerant of dogs outdoors, there is a prevailing taboo in Turkish culture against keeping a dog inside the walls of a home. This meant trying to get them adopted was not realistic. In addition, euthanasia is what got the public riled up in the first place. What was decided upon was a trap, treat and release approach.
And this is where those tags come in.
The official management policy of the national Turkish government towards stray dogs is to trap them, spay or neuter them, vaccinate them, treat them for any disease they may have at the time, and then release them back into the neighborhood where they were captured.
Before they are released, though, one of those tags is placed in their ear to mark them as treated in case they are inadvertently recaptured.
Although life is not easy for them, they have allies. My second year in Samsun, large, awkward looking machines—that in my eyes resembled giant mail drop boxes—started popping up around the city. I browsed the internet for some explanation of these as well, and discovered someone in Istanbul had invented this contraption that was now being funded and set up by municipal governments around the country. There were small holes in the top where pedestrians could insert their recyclable bottles or cans. But instead of getting a little money in return, a small amount of dog food would be dispensed into the tray at the bottom. Stray dogs passing by could then help themselves.
Around that same time, Istanbul officials announced the introduction of a bill that would effectively allow for the management of stray dogs by loading them up in trucks and shipping them out to the surrounding woodlands. Parallels were immediately drawn between this legislation and the island of Sivriada. The subsequent backlash was so swift and furious the bill was quickly tabled and hasn’t been revisited since.
I was taking a stroll along the beach one afternoon in late winter. I came across about six of these thin, dirty, tagged dogs who had apparently formed something of a pack for companionship. This was a fairly common sight. At times I even saw younger and stronger dogs standing on the sidewalk, looking over their shoulder, waiting for an older or weaker one to catch up. The older ones lounged in the sand, soaking up the first bits of spring’s warmth, while the younger ones romped and frolicked with each other in the waves.
I had a flashback to the animal shelters I used to volunteer with in California. I remembered the clean, well-fed animals sitting on a concrete floor inside of a dim warehouse full of small, chain link pens. But more than that, I thought of the 600,000+ dogs in the USA who are put in shelters every year only to be euthanized.
And a strange question entered my mind. What is freedom?
To me, Turkey’s stray dogs today are the embodiment of all that freedom is, and the answer to why so many seek after it without question.
They face hunger, they face the elements, they face danger, but they are free; free to starve, free to forge, free to endure, free to shelter, free to wander alone and free to seek each other. Their destiny is their own as much as any creature.
In America, where the sight of a dog wandering the streets unattached to a human is for some reason intolerable, they would be locked away somewhere with four walls and a roof and be brought their meals in a silver dish. But in the end there would be a more than a 50% chance of their life being taken from them by another with the swift push of a needle and squeeze of a syringe.
And that is the real story of the Turkish street dog: the journey to true freedom.
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