In 2010, press reports circulated that local authorities in Istanbul were rounding up stray dogs to dump in the city’s forests. Observers lined up to criticise the measures. Animal welfare activist Viktor Larkhill argued that ‘the stray dog situation has become one of the most visible and embarrassing social problems in Turkey. The way we treat our animals is a measure of our stance as a society. We are facing a social wrong, and the only way to deal with such a problem is not to “manage” it, but to solve it.’ Foreign observers have similarly criticised such measures and sought to alleviate the plight, as they see it, of Istanbul’s stray dogs.
There is nothing new here. In 1910 the newly installed Young Turk regime tried to rid the city of its stray dogs by rounding them up and shipping them off to a deserted island. Although the authorities claimed that they would be make sure that the dogs were fed and watered, the dogs ended up starving and eating themselves. As with current schemes to rid the city of stray dogs, the deportation of the dogs to the island in 1910 met with “resistance” from the dogs (who bit their would-be captors’ hands) and local residents. Particularly in poor and religious areas, residents had formed close bonds with local dogs and offered them food. In return, the dogs treated the neighbourhood as their territory and barked when strangers approached.
Feeding ‘street dogs’
For their part, Western observers greeted the dogs’ deportation with a mixture of dismay and praise. Tellingly, the Pasteur Institute approved of the measures. It associated dogs with dirt and disease, particularly rabies.
What explains the city authorities’ actions? According to French anthropologist Catherine Pinguet in Les chiens d’Istanbul (2008), modernization lay at the heart of the matter. Modernizers wanted to transform Istanbul along Western lines as part of their wider project of modernizing Turkey. Alongside promoting constitutionalism, secularization, and nationalism, they wanted to rid Istanbul of stray dogs, which they saw as symbols of a disorderly and backward urban society.
Dogs in Istanbul c.1880
Attacking the dogs went hand-in-hand with attacking religion and superstition: dogs were reportedly treated better in religious areas and local folklore had it that when dogs were treated badly, disaster would soon strike the city. Modern Istanbul would be free of such superstitions, as well as dog shit, dog-borne diseases (such as rabies), and barking. Once cleansed of these unsavoury elements, the officials hoped, it would be clean, rationally planned and productive: no longer would barking disturb the sleep of tired urbanites who had to work in the morning.
For modernizing officials in 1910, stray dogs represented dirt, disease and danger. For their city to progress, the dogs had to go. But they did not succeed in eradicating dogs from Istanbul, despite repeated poisoning campaigns, such as the gassing of over 5,000 dogs in 1933 and 1934. Stray dogs therefore remain part of the city today and look set to continue as sources of controversy, targets of “cleansing” campaigns, and focal points of compassion and fascination.