Stray dogs in Turkey are finding friends and supporters in Europe. European foundations are raising support to neuter and vaccinate the dogs and send them back to the streets they came from. Those that are too weak to stay on the streets, are finding homes in loving European homes; Not long ago, on a November morning while Hank Curfs, a Dutch native was looking out of his apartment window in Kurtköy he saw something that deeply affected him. While observing his apartment complex’s garden he saw a bitch carrying her puppies one by one in her mouth through the fence.
“Tuesday evening I was surfing the Internet to find an organization that would take care of puppies like these,” said Curfs. “To my surprise I found a foundation in Holland. That night I sent a message, and on Wednesday morning I had a reply.” By the next weekend, the puppies and their mother were safe in a Turkish dog shelter in Istanbul’s Kemerburgaz area. Now Curfs is trying to get as much attention as possible to enable this Dutch foundation to contribute even further toward finding the solution for the problem of stray dogs in Turkey. Next week he will speak on a national Dutch radio show to help raise more funds. “I’ve always loved animals… that was part of our education in Holland and in our family we have animals… they also have a life and it should be as humane as possible,” said Curfs.
“I was touched by the devotion of the people there for the animals. I had never been confronted with this problem of stray dogs in Istanbul before,” he said.
At the Society for the Protection of Stray Animals – Sahipsiz Hayvanları Koruma Derneği (SHKD) – shelter in Kemerburgaz, Murat Bekhan, 35, a veterinarian and manager of the shelter showed the Turkish Daily News the hundreds of dogs that live there. In fenced off yards, the dogs are free to run around, play, eat, and explore the nature around them. He points to a dog that is frantically wagging its tail and running in mad circles at a safe distance. “That one is Sibel,” said Bekhan. “When we found her, she had lived on a 50 centimeter leash for the whole of her life.” Two foreign women come with sausages for the dogs – a special rare treat – and greet Murat and the dogs. The women from Holland and Germany are married to businessmen who work in Istanbul and come every two weeks to pet the dogs, give them love and treats and hang out with them. “They have worked so much on Sibel,” he said.
The Turkish stray dog problem in Turkey is grave and overwhelming, said Bekhan. In Istanbul’s European side alone, he estimated there are about 100,000 stray dogs.
The issue has drawn so much attention in Europe that the wife of European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen, who is an ambassador of good will for an animal protection organization Pro Animale, visited an animal shelter in the western city of Bursa and visited Istanbul Mayor Kadır Topbaş in Istanbul. The two spoke about the situation of stray dogs in Turkey. Verheugen’s wife even adopted a dog from the Bursa shelter and named her Nilu, a short form of the Turkish name Nilüfer.
Curfs is just one example of Europeans who have become strong advocates for Turkish dogs. Linda Taal, 52, is the founder of the organization Curfs discovered online, dedicated solely to Turkish strays. Taal founded the StrayDogsCampaign (ActieZwerfhonden) four years ago when whilst looking for a dog to adopt she found another Dutch foundation that brought dogs from countries like Turkey. Their aim is to make Europeans and Turks aware of how many stray dogs there are in Turkey, raise funds for them and help solve the problem. “The best thing is to neuter the dog and then release it where you found it,” said Taal. “If you catch and kill or imprison, you will never solve the problem,” she said as other dogs will just move into the neighborhood. “Some can’t be returned because they are too weak or old… these kinds of dogs end up in a shelter and should be treated properly.” It is dogs like these that have ended up at the SHKD shelter. “For these dogs, re-homing is the best solution… how would you feel if you were in prison for the rest of your life?”
Through Taal’s program Europeans can distance-“adopt” a Turkish dog for 20 euros a month. In the last three years she has been able to raise about 80,000 euros in order to support in kind Turkish dog shelters. A Turkish law prohibits foundations from directly receiving money from foreign sources. Although her foundation doesn’t get involved in re-homing, The TDN found four organizations in Germany, two in Holland and England along with about a dozen individuals who want to help Turkey take care of its stray dog problem from Antalya, to Kuşadasi, to Istanbul, through shelters and re-homing. Bekhan estimated that every year his shelter alone sends around 100 dogs to Europe.
The support from Europe baffles some Turks. “Why are they interested in Turkish dogs?” asked a Turkish resident of Istanbul’s Sarıyer district who wished to remain anonymous. Taal on the other hand said from a foreigner’s perspective the Turkish treatment of dogs is “unbelievable” and “terrible.” “Most Turks don’t really know what an animal is like, that it needs love,” said Taal.
Turks working with stray dogs in Turkey say they have countered much suspicion from Turks and local authorities about all this “dog business.” Bilge Okay, member of the SHKD board said the mentality is that if foreigners or Turks are this interested in dogs they must be up to something fishy. “They are missionaries, spies, drug dealers,” are the accusations the organizers of the shelter have heard the most. “They are looking for conspiracy theories,” said Okay. On Dec. 4 Turkish language daily Milliyet reported that officials stopped two tourists in İzmir from leaving the country with two stray dogs they found during their visit. The tourists didn’t have the necessary official documents for the dogs. Nesrin Çıtırık of the Protection of Nature and Animals Foundation claimed that some sell them as medical test subjects in their home countries, others take photos of the dogs to prove how badly they are treated in Turkey, and then make money through organized campaigns, reported Milliyet.
The Turkish resident of Sarıyer said a pack of large dogs have been menacing his street for years. “They chase us and bark at us and try to bite us.” When he called the Sarıyer Municipality six months ago requesting the city get rid of them, he was shocked by their response. “They said they couldn’t take them away. They can only neuter them and vaccinate them, tag them and bring them back to their environment,” he said. “The stray dogs problem in Turkey is really bad. I don’t want those dogs in my street. I can’t send my 7-year-old son to the grocer alone.”
Bekhan said very few dogs are violent in nature, and should be kept in shelters. But the majority of them can be rehabilitated to live with humans. Although Turks have a long history of friendship with dogs through the Kangal, a shepherd dog, and in the last 20 years animal shops and pet veterinarians have opened practices, most Turks would not bring a stray dog into their home. Northern Europeans and Americans, on the other hand, are quicker to incorporate them in their families. “As you see foreigners are more interested in dogs, more sympathetic and concerned. But for Turks… culturally they are not that interested. They’re not used to having dogs as pets,” said Okay. At the shelter in Kemerburgaz, Bekhan showed the TDN dogs on the rehabilitation/re-homing track, outside of cages trailing behind the shelter keepers. “We leave them out so they can get used to us, and living around humans,” he said. The dogs pass scrutinizing behavioral and physical tests before they are sent overseas, the only homes that seem to want them. If they are fit for adoption, Bekhan sends their photo to the agencies he works with overseas, along with the dog’s story and medical history. “Then I wait,” he said. Currently 100 dogs are waiting for adoption, but the requests are slow. Once five dogs are adopted, he can buy their plane ticket, visas, pay for their medical examination and ship them. The process is expensive at 3,500 euros for a pack of five, but he and the SHKD’s members said it is worth it.
“Instead of the dogs spending all their lives in a prison, they can be part of a family. When we see pictures of the dogs in the families, we feel the joy of having saved the dog’s life,” said Oktay. “In Turkey it is impossible to re-home a dog.”
Bekhan who in the nearly 10 years he has done this work has never had support from his municipality and has had to fight against Turkish realities that are not friendly toward dogs or those who love them said this is his only comfort: Re-homing.
“Re-homing gives me wonderful fruit. Since 1998 I’ve done this for nothing. I’m a human and I get discouraged and I want to give up. But when I see a photo of a lady with a dog, I’m happy and it gives me more energy… when you find a dog in bad condition and you treat it, then you want the next step,” said Bekhan.
The SHKD’s members said the next step for them is education, which they hope will be more fruitful in terms of changing mentalities about dogs in Turkey, and helping further to deal with the stray dog problem in Turkey.