We expected a coffee shop on every corner in Istanbul. We expected mosques everywhere. We even expected a well groomed crop of Istanbullus. What we didn’t expect was the plethora of stray dogs and cats. Growing up in Egypt, where we were the rare family that had dogs, I know that dogs are considered unclean by Muslims. Turkey is about 98% Muslim yet groomed and well generally behaved dogs not only freely roam the streets of Istanbul, they are taken care of by Istanbullus.
Until 2004, the city used to capture and kill its strays. Public outcry urged the city to rethink this practice. While Islam does have negative connotations about dogs, it also urges its followers to treat all creatures with kindness. The compromise in Istanbul is that strays are vaccinated and neutered or spayed by the municipality and released back into the area in which they were found. The treated animals are tagged and micro chipped with a record of their medical history. Istanbullus rarely allow these animals into their homes, but take it upon themselves to feed and sometimes provide outdoor accommodations. I am a big believer in having a pet, but Sandeep, who doesn’t mind animals from a distance, argues that this is the more natural way of treating animals. Their basic needs of shelter and food are provided by humans, yet they avoid pent up energy by roaming freely. This is not unlike what we observed in Chiang Mai, with it’s pedigree-like crop of stray dogs.
Istanbullus that have chosen to semi-adopt a stray take their duties seriously. Every evening, we see little aluminum trays with pet foot outside the doorways of our neighborhood. Most have dried kibble, but many have delicious looking hot food. We’ve seen cardboard and straw bedding outside stores for the dogs. The tiny corner store on our block, where I couldn’t even find cereal, had a variety of cat and dog food in single serving baggies.
The practice of treating and releasing the dogs is not without its issues. Animal rights organizations around Istanbul still claim that the municipality doesn’t fully follow through on its directives. Some report that dogs are captured and released into uninhabited areas, where they are left to starve. Aggressive and temperamental dogs are not unheard of, and their night time barking can be a nuisance.
Islam doesn’t hold the same negative connotations about cats as it does on dogs. That, combined with the more reclusive nature of cats, makes them more tolerated on Istanbul’s streets. In addition to the well groomed people, even the animals seem to take their style seriously. I took this picture a few days ago, finding it rather amusing that the cat matched the bike. The cat has been on that bike for the past two days, which just goes to show that every stray has a home in Istanbul.