ISTANBUL — People have taken to the streets by the thousands in Istanbul over the last few weeks. But the city that straddles Europe and Asia is upset not about its economy or its national politics. Turks are enraged about plans to round up stray dogs.
Thousands of people marched through the center of Istanbul holding placards saying leave our animals alone. The October protest was the largest in support of animal welfare that Turkey has ever seen.
This demonstrator said Gandhi had a very important saying - that you can evaluate the culture of society by its treatment of animals. He said he believes this law will be abolished soon.
The protest was against government-proposed legislation to remove stray animals from the streets and place them in sanctuaries outside towns and cities. But the proposal has been met with deep skepticism and suspicion by animal rights groups who fear it will be the first step toward the animals' destruction.
Katja Eldek of the animal rights group Hayvan Seviler points out that in Istanbul alone, there are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 stray dogs.
"We just don’t see where the government is going to find enough resources or even employees, qualified veterinarians, to look after these animals once they have them in these natural habitats," said Eldek. "We wanted legislation that would actually look after these animals, rather than what they are doing at the moment, which is signing their death certificate."
Protests against the government proposals have gone from the streets to the Internet. This ad calls on people to protect street dogs. The size of the street protests, which occurred across the country and drew people from all sections of society, appeared to take the government by surprise.
Withdrawing the legislation
Minister of Forestry and Water Works Veysel Eroglu said lawmakers are withdrawing the legislation for further consideration. He insisted the government has the animals' interests at heart.
He said Turkey's prime minister says animal rights are very important and that he has asked to revise and improve the regulation. Eroglu said we must all love animals because they too are living creatures. He said we must love them because God created them.
The minister said the proposed law aims to comply with European Union standards. But the proposal to round up street dogs has stirred up memories of a dark event in Istanbul’s past.
The scene is from a recent short film about when the rulers of Ottoman Turkey in 1910 rounded up all of Istanbul’s street dogs and placed them on an island just outside the city. The thousands of dogs with no food to eat ended up eating each other. At the time, there was a public outcry, and it to this day it remains a well-known and shameful story.
Animal rights activist Eldek said the events of 1910 are a factor behind the strong reaction against the government proposal.
"It's written in history, and it does bring back memories. But the problem of stray animals is not something we are supporting. We don’t want the animals living on the streets if we can avoid it," Eldek said. "But there are different things the government can do for this, one of which is a catch-neuter-and-return policy, which is in action at the moment, to kind of make sure this is a widespread policy that is being obeyed all over Turkey."
Street dogs have been a part of Istanbul for centuries. In the 19th century, charities existed to provide food and water for them. The scale of public support for street dogs, observers say, has led to a rare event of the government withdrawing legislation, albeit temporarily, for what it calls consultation. But animal rights groups expect the legislation to be reintroduced early next year and are already preparing for new protests.