The Strays of Istanbul

Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul”

Kedi, 2016 Turkish documentary

An aspect of Istanbul culture that I found particularly endearing is the communal care of stray animals. I was initially surprised at the sheer number of strays everywhere! While walking around the city, one cannot travel more than a few steps without coming across one of the many cats and dogs freely roaming around. Bowls of food and water along with makeshift shelters were scattered about town, often taking up precious space along narrow sidewalks to ensure that the animals are well-fed and have a place to rest.

My first encounter with a stray was awfully cute. Having found a lack of seating at my hotel’s breakfast buffet, I ventured out into a nearby café for sustenance. It was pouring – raining cats and dogs, you might say – and as I was sitting and sipping a tiny cup of Turkish coffee inside, I bemusedly watched as a tiny bedraggled tabby kitten slipped in and started mewing at a table of two women. The ladies, looking uncomfortable, ignored the kitten. A waiter soon came over and scooped the kitten up to deposit it somewhere outside. However, as the waiter scurried back and forth taking orders and delivering food to customers sitting under the covered patio outside, the kitten took advantage of his distraction to slip back in. The ladies it had mewed at earlier had left by this time, and the kitten jumped onto one of the recently vacated seats for a nap. Chuckling, I saw the waiter noticed and, with a sigh, let the cat sleep and kept on with his job.

Over the course of my time in Istanbul, I learned that the city has a history of treating its strays well, but it wasn’t always so. During the early 20th century, many cleansing campaigns were implemented to rid the city of unwanted animals (mostly dogs) that represented noisy disturbances, dirt and danger from diseases, such as rabies. Officials would put poisoned food in the streets to take care of the problem. In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdülaziz had all the city’s stray dogs rounded up and dumped on Hayirsiz, an island of barren, steep cliffs in the Marmara Sea.

Accounts of travelers — sometimes baffled, sometimes disconcerted or frightened — rarely fail to mention the dogs… Yakob Basmajean claimed in 1890 that no other city in the world had as many dogs as the metropolis on the Bosporus. The dogs were so omnipresent that streetcar employees had to drive them from the tracks with long sticks so the horse-drawn wagons could pass through. Passers-by could often stop to watch them fighting with one another. Their howling could be heard all night; there were so many dogs that their voices blended into a constant sound “like the quaking of frogs in the distance,” as one observer vividly described. It sounds like the dogs, not the authorities, set the tone. In popular shadow-puppet plays, dogs were compared to the poor…Although dogs formed part of a romantic cityscape, caricatures from the Ottoman period depict them as threats to be stopped, along with cholera, crime, and women in European clothing. 

Brett Brunner, 2012
I tried feeding a mother and pup I saw in a cemetery some bread that I had in my purse. They didn’t want it – I realized later that they were probably already stuffed from all the food available to them.

During the rule of the Young Turks in 1910, tens of thousands of dogs were once again rounded up and taken to the small island of Sivriada, a place where Byzantine rulers once banned criminals. According to French anthropologist Catherine Pinquet (Les Chiens d’Istanbul 2008), street dogs were considered at the time scapegoats for problems encountered through the process of modernizing society – the desire to promote constitutionalism, secularism and nationalism while ridding all forms of the former disorderly and backward urban society.

Although officials stated that dogs were being provided food and water, many ended up starving or resulting to cannibalism. A yellowed postcard from the era shows hundreds of dogs on the beach; their voices heard even at great distances. A subsequent earthquake was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure, and the dogs were brought back. Other controversial campaigns occurred through the following decades to try to rid Istanbul of its strays, for example a gassing campaign that rid the city of 5,000 dogs in 1933 and 1934.

In 2004, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB), in compliance with a new national animal protection law (Animal Welfare Act No. 5199), made it its goal to vaccinate, sterilize and care for about 130,000 stray dogs and 165,000 stray cats. By 2018, the IBB was able to reach 73,608 animals on the street, an impressive jump compared to the 2,470 animals in 2004.

This law was made possible, in part, to Animal activists who campaigned hard for better care and compassion, citing the way animals are treated is a measure of a nation’s stance as a society. Their work has made a difference among the public. Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water failed to draft a law to send dogs to “wildlife parks” in the outskirts of the city, as it was met with opposition from thousands of activists and supporters.

Istanbul now has amble resources for its strays to live a happy and healthy life. A Vetbus, a mobile veterinary clinic, stays for a several days in various neighborhoods of the city. People report in animals that need care, and the bus journeys over to find the injured or sick animals. Nihan Dincer, a veterinarian working for the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) has said that “because people are in constant contact with them, they’re also protected” (2019).

An aspect I admire is that most residents share veterinary costs among themselves, often taking sick animals to the vet and racking up a personal bill. It has made a big difference to the safety and cleanliness of the city. With keeping animals well-fed, they’re less likely to be aggressive or rip apart trash bags for food. Another big proven benefit: there hasn’t been a case of rabies in Istanbul since 2016! Two big issues now are the uphill battle of keeping the stray population down through spaying and neutering and the lax punishment for animal offenders (only subject to fines).

Look at that meat! These cats have it good!

I have noticed a cultural preference in Turkey for stray cats over dogs. Felines are treated much better than their canine neighbors, though both have free reign of the city. A shopkeeper who saw Meagan and I eyeing her porcelain cats told us that “people who like cats are good to other people.” The cats there even have a notable media presence’s as an Instagram account featuring the stray cats of Istanbul has over 17,000 followers. A 2016 documentary about Istanbul’s stray cats, called Kedi, received critical acclaim and grossed over $4 million.

I wondered if this was mainly due to religious reasons. Although Turkey’s constitution is secular, meaning there is a separation between religion and the state (debatable under the current president), 99% of Turkish citizens identify as Muslim. Despite that taking care of all living creatures is a core part of the Shari’ah, cats are given special treatment.

Looking back at my own history, as a kid, I was pushed to favor dogs over cats when my father converted the family to Islam. It was hard for me, as I’ve always love all animals, but dogs were off the table as pet. Dogs are considered unclean by many Muslims. They’re seen as animals that can’t clean themselves and eat anything they can find (including dead things and excrement). They have the potential for dirtying prayer rugs and (in Turkish superstition) prevent angels from visiting; so many prefer not to even touch dogs (some going as far as considering them evil). In contrast, in Islamic tradition, it’s fine to feed a cat within your home, even from the same dish you are eating from as they’re considered “clean” animals.

As I’ve got older and able to do my own research, I’ve found that there’s no clear basis for this bias in the Qur’an other than stories of the Prophet (pbuh) prohibiting the harming or killing of cats, and there are numerous stories about helpful cats. An article from The Economist in 2017 touches on this topic:

Turkey is not unique among predominately Muslim countries for honoring its cats, which are considered ritually clean animals in Islam. In the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, there are numerous examples of the Prophet’s fondness for cats. By one account, Muhammad cut off his sleeve when he had to rise for prayers so as to not disturb a feline that had curled up on his robe for a nap. In another tale, the pet cat of Abu Hurayrah (literally “father of the kitten”) saved Muhammad from an attack by a deadly serpent. Muhammad purportedly blessed the cat in gratitude, giving cats the ability to always land on their feet. Cats were considered guardians in other respects for the Islamic world: they defended libraries from destruction by mice and may have helped protect city populations from rat-borne plagues.

Economist, 2017

During my final year of middle school, my father became a bit lenient and allowed my mother, brother, and me to adopt a golden retriever (we named him Shadow from the Homeward Bound movies) to help adjust to moving across the ocean to New Mexico, USA. While Shadow had to be kept in the backyard at all times, we did have two cats and two rabbits for a short time that were allowed inside.

Over 800 curious and eager Muslims attended the 2014 “I want to touch a dog” event in Malaysia.

On a side note, there have been movements among activists in Muslim nations to change the notion of dogs as haram. During my 2015 summer internship in Malaysia as a grad student, I heard of a scandalous event that was organized the year prior where a bunch of Muslims could hug and play with dogs as a way to bridge the barriers between the three main ethnic groups in the country (Chinese, Malay, and Indian).

The hard-lined National Fatwa Council condemned the get-together as highly offensive to Islam, on par with such harmful issues plaguing the country as alcohol imbibing, consuming pork, and Muslim women wearing revealing western clothing. The organizer received death threats and had to apologize, stating that he didn’t mean to try to turn anyone away from their faith. Though, honestly, I feel like your faith can’t be that strong if a mere dog can sway it.

This is incredibly sad as there is a long history of positive interactions between Muslims and dogs that many don’t know about! For instance, Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) himself prayed in the presence of dogs! Many of his cousins and companions raised puppies! In the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the second holiest site in the world for Muslims after the Kaaba, dogs were regularly seen frolicking about during the prophet’s life and for centuries after as well.

“If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.”

Popular Turkish Saying

Throughout Turkish history, dogs were often used to guard not only flocks of sheep and goats (important investments for a family), but also to scare off would-be thieves and attackers. Dogs were additionally used by skilled hunters to help find and catch food. The Prophet is known to recommend washing a vessel that a dog has licked seven times and once with earth, but I think that’s a precaution against disease as dogs were also used as waste disposals back in the day to keep cities clean.

Such a cat thing to do: a stray stands behind the no entry area within the Hagia Sophia.

             Regardless of good or bad biases, the strays of Istanbul are there to stay. They’ve become such a beloved icon of the city with compassionate residents are up in arms whenever actions to remove them permanently are taken. There are also many efforts underway to find the strays good homes – going so far as bringing as far away as the USA!  Don’t be surprised if, in Istanbul, a dog stands and waits next to you at a stoplight to cross the road or cats brush up against your legs as you walk. All the animals I encountered were pretty tame and affectionate – and definitely not hungry!

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