When traveling around Istanbul it’s impossible to miss the city's rich history and architecture, or the smell of delicious food on every corner, and the breathtaking views of the sea.
For Americans, seeing so many free-roaming dogs around is pretty shocking but if you ask a local, the street dogs are just as much a part of the community as they are.
Turkey is very much against euthanasia of dogs and cats for population control. According to the ASPCA, every year about 776,000 of the 5.5 Million dogs that enter shelters in the U.S are euthanized.
“Americans who come here and think, ‘how awful they have so many homeless dogs’ are quite funny. That, for them, is awful and yet the practice of murdering good dogs just because maybe they had a bad owner who gave them up because they are too old or the owner moves and leaves them is humane? The logic is puzzling.”
Over the last decade, the Turkish government launched a program to limit the number of stray dogs and cats being sent to an already overcrowded shelter.
“The shelters in Turkey are very bad,” said Hişal Sevuk Ozdil. She opened a coffee shop in the city called ‘Bone’ that’s friendly to dogs both domesticated and free.
“The conditions...it’s horrible. And instead of passing laws to regulate them, investing money to improve them, the government started the street dog program,” she said.
Turgut Ağar, co-founder of an animal rights organization on Istanbul’s Kınalı island says humans often have good intentions, but instead of loving animals, they strip them of their innate freedom.
“First of all, just as human rights are not the rights granted to us, but if we have the innate qualities, we can not and will not be able to assign, animal rights are not the same rights we give to animals, but their innate rights. So, in fact, we do not love animals and do them a favor, as most people think.
“They created an app you download to your phone that monitors all the free dogs near you. People mark when they have fed them, mark where they last saw them...those kinds of things. If you notice something wrong with a dog, you send an alert so it’s picked up and taken to the vet. Of course, that’s a better option than locking them in a shelter waiting to die.”
Turkey’s “trap-spay/neuter-vaccinate/treat and release program” monitors the country’s free-roaming dogs. After a stray is picked up off the street by animal control, it’s taken to a vet to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and other diseases, treated for minor illnesses, ear-tagged for identification, and then released back to the neighborhood where they were picked up.
According to recent estimates Istanbul, a city of 11.3 Million people, there are at least 150,000 free-roaming dogs.
On my flight home from turkey, I couldn’t stop wondering if a homeless pet program like the one in Istanbul could ever work in the states but by the end of the 11-hour flight, I had even more questions than answers so I reached out the experts at the humane rescue alliance in Washington, DC for some help
This is Matt Williams, senior director of communications for the Washington Humane Society and the Washington Animal Rescue League. When I told him about turkey’s street dogs, he wasn’t sold on the idea
“These are for the most part domesticated animals,” said Williams. “They really do require for the most part help from humans. Certainly, there are stray dogs in rural areas that survive and live out there. But there are a number of factors that make that not so good.”
I have a scar on my cheek from when I was attacked by a dog when I was still in preschool. So I understand why unleashing hundreds of thousands of stray dogs into the street probably isn’t a great idea.
“I think with dogs especially in our society there is a fear sometimes for people for a dog running at large and I think in our society that's not considered acceptable,” Williams added.
The concept of a community coming together to take care of them isn’t too far-fetched though. According to Matt Williams, it’s already sort of happening here.
“I think different areas have different practices and certainly that's a really interesting practice it’s actually similar in some ways to how we handle outdoor cats community cats.
I asked him what he thought people could do to help the millions of dogs entering shelters every year.
“The good news is there are some systems that are working really well,” he said. “Spay-neuter is working the further northeast you go the fewer animals you find in shelters and in our case here we bring in animals from the south where they are overrun sometimes.
If you really want to do something about all the homeless pets, he says giving one a home is one of the best things you can.
“What we would encourage all people to do is find it in their heart and in their home to adopt an animal. It’s better to adopt an animal. Those pet stores that are selling animals they're not a necessary thing. We don’t have to have that. So by adopting animals out of shelters slowly but surely as it has in DC that will become the thing to do and we’re happy about that and we want to see that continue.”