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Istanbul leads the way with humanitarian approach to strays

Stray dogs are just like domestic dogs but with a little less idea how to behave at tea-parties. © Pixabay

Stray dogs and cats are a fact of life in Turkey’s capital – and by treating the animals respectfully, locals are able to co-exist with their furry neighbours in peace and harmony.

By G. John Cole, 27 Feb 2019

The days when it was normal to see a stray dog wandering the streets of a western-European city now seem distant. But in eastern capitals like Istanbul, Bucharest, and Sarajevo 'progress' doesn't need to mean 'destruction' - and they are still a fact of life.

Communal pets

Left to their own devices, the story doesn’t always end well. Of course, stray animals can pick up diseases and spread them to each other, or even to humans. And they suffer also, when they struggle to find food – as do the dogs in the forests that border Istanbul – or are mistreated by heartless locals, who sometimes consider them little more than vermin.

But the existence of stray dogs is a man-made issue and a human responsibility. And while some localities choose the path of eradication, as we have in the west, this is neither the kindest option nor a necessary one.

Dogs have evolved alongside humans and, when treated with respect and carefully managed, can be welcome and even comforting fellow citizens on a city’s streets. Feeding, vaccinating, and – arguably – sterilizing street dogs allows them to live out an existence that may be more ‘hard knock’ than the average domestic Labrador, but which has value for the creature and his human neighbours.

A civilized attitude in harmony with nature

The caring attitude to animals “comes from the Islamic tradition, and part of it comes from the structuring of the public space in the Ottoman Empire,” Mine Yildirim, doctoral candidate at the New School for Social Research in New York, told Shine.

In Istanbul – which, like Sarajevo, boasts a predominantly Islamic culture – individuals and authorities each play an increasing role in providing medical care, sustenance, and comfort to their furry fellows. 

Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Ministry apparently contributed the equivalent of £4.43m towards the welfare of the nation’s stray animals between 2009-2018. The municipality of Istanbul employs vets and distributes food to the animals. They’ve also initiated the Vetbus, a mobile treatment unit that publicizes the availability of strays that are suitable for adoption.

And everyday people contribute by drawing the vets’ attention to local strays in need of attention, putting out food, and even providing shelter.

An estimated 130,000 dogs and 165,000 cats live rough in Istanbul, and the dogs, at least, make for warm company as locals pursue their daily existence. There’s nothing like a nod and a wag with a friendly neighbour after a gloomy trip to the shops.