Turkey divided over mass cull of 4mn street dogs


On a warm summer evening in Ankara, four dogs charged down one of the sleepy streets, barking with the self-assurance of animals enjoying the run of Turkey’s capital. 

The noisy canine pack — some sporting brightly coloured state-issued tags in their ears — are among the estimated 4mn “street dogs” that along with feral cats are ever-present in Turkey’s cities and sprawling countryside. The stray dog population is on a par with total number of people living in Izmir, Turkey’s third-biggest province.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party has signalled that it will soon unveil a new, unpitying approach to managing this vast population — at least when it comes to dogs. Local governments would be required to round up strays, sterilise them and put them up for adoption. Those that fail to find a home after 30 days would be killed by injection, according to a draft law circulated in state-aligned media. 

“We have a stray dog problem that does not exist in any developed country,” Erdoğan said in late May, without mentioning the reported plans for a cull. 

A systematic programme to eliminate strays would mark a radical departure from two decades of policies that have centred on catching dogs, sterilising them and returning them to where they were found. These policies have been inconsistently implemented, according to vets and politicians. 

Activists in Istanbul protest against plans to remove stray dogs from the street © Mehmet Kacmaz/Getty Images

The question of what — if anything — should be done to remove strays from the country’s streets has exposed deep fissures in Turkish society, which includes some pious muslims who see dogs as unclean.

Erdoğan has said recently that the stray dog problem had reached an “unbearable point”, citing public health and safety risks. The president and other senior officials in his Justice and Development party have also said the animals are holding back Turkey’s development, since most rich countries are able to get stray animals off the streets.

Still, many animal lovers see street dogs as an integral part of Turkish life. Dog houses are a regular sight in parks, while residents often leave dry food and even meat scraps out for the taking. Istanbul was home to a famous shepherd mix named Boji, who became a fixture of the city’s trams and ferries before a controversy prompted his adoption by a member of one of Turkey’s richest business dynasties.

But others view the hordes of street dogs as a dangerous menace. There are no comprehensive statistics on stray-dog-related incidents, but the government has said they have been responsible for thousands of road accidents in recent years, some of them fatal.

Sporadic reports of stray dog attacks, particularly against children and the elderly, captivate Turkish media and incite vigorous online debate.

“My daughter Mahra was hit by a truck while being chased by two stray dogs and died . . . after struggling for her life for 23 days,” said Murat Pınar, who founded Turkey’s Safe Streets Association after the death in 2022 of his nine-year-old daughter. 

He added: “The state needs to discuss whether to sterilise, cull or look after them as soon as possible. It is very urgent to collect them all.” 

Erdi Küçük, an Ankara-based vet, agreed that street dogs are a “threat” both to people and other animals. He said stray animals are a public health hazard. since they can spread diseases through bites or excrement. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns travellers that “dogs infected with rabies are commonly found in Turkey”.

A privately funded shelter that houses hundreds of dogs on the outskirts of Ankara © Adam Samson/FT

However, Küçük said many vets including himself would be unwilling to destroy healthy animals. He advocates an approach where dogs are collected and either adopted or looked after on dedicated public lands.

Küçük’s view appears to match much of the broader Turkish population: almost 80 per cent of those surveyed by Ankara-based Metropoll last year said that dogs should be taken from the streets, but less than 3 per cent said they should be killed. 

Cihangir Gündoğdu, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University who studies the history of stray animals, said the debate was hardly new. He noted that it had “galvanised society” as far back as the 19th century, a time when the Ottoman Empire had been seeking to modernise civil society. 

The drive to rid streets of stray dogs from Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, reached its peak around 1910, when authorities banished some 80,000 dogs to their doom on a barren island in the Sea of Marmara, Gündoğdu said. The howls from the dogs, abandoned with no food or access to water, were said to be heard from the Istanbul shore.

As Erdoğan appears ready to move ahead with a modern-day cull, some opposition politicians have begun to side with the street dogs. Nimet Özdemir, an MP who has played a key role in animal rights issues for the opposition Iyi party, worries that any campaign would echo the “savagery” of the past, since it would be difficult to humanely kill so many animals. “I believe the death of animals will happen in pain and brutality,” she said. 

Özdemir alleged that Erdoğan’s government, which has ruled Turkey for two decades, had “magnified this small problem” by failing to properly implement the sterilisation programme and was now “penalising the most innocent and harmless” for its shortcomings. 

Gülüzar Çıtak says it is crucial to curb the pet breeding industry © Adam Samson/FT

Gülüzar Çıtak, who founded a privately-funded shelter that houses hundreds of dogs on the outskirts of Ankara, said that it was crucial to curb the pet breeding industry, since so many pet dogs are abandoned in Turkey. 

Given the numbers of abandoned pets, “breeding should be completely banned”, said Çıtak as she walked around the outdoor property that houses dogs of all shapes and sizes, from the hulking shepherds that are common on Turkish streets, to a shy husky and a playful golden retriever. 

Çıtak recounted stories of how she found a mother and puppies abandoned on the side of a road, while others were left on the margins of villages, and many have been injured in road accidents. Adoptions are rare, with only around five animals taken from the shelter every month. 

“Some came as puppies . . . some were thrown out on the street because they were old,” she said, adding that “we are full . . . I wish we had a bigger space.”

 





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