Out of Turkey: An end to pet hates sees a dog's life improve

ISTANBUL - Perhaps it was when I discovered the Scottie dog was no longer behind bars in a cage in the Istanbul Zoo that I realised something fundamental had changed in the Turkish attitude towards pets.

The zoo-keeper agreed. 'He died. We didn't replace him,' he said. 'There's not much call to see the little dogs in the zoo any more. They are all over the place now.'

It's true. All over Turkey there are proud new dog owners. Pouting models at Istanbul airport have poodles. Gruff, bearded intellectuals have great shaggy animals. And Dalmatians are in oversupply. This is an extraordinary change of heart, a cultural watershed for a people who have happily lived for centuries, if not millennia, with man's best friend locked firmly out of the house, charged with keeping the wolf from the sheepshed door.

Turkey's indigenous wolf-hunting Anatolian shepherd dog, the splendid Kangal, has stamina, loyalty and intelligence. But so far there are far more clubs of Kangal owners in Germany and the United States than in Turkey.

Hints of change have been in the air for a year or two. Take pet food, for instance. When our daughter adopted a kitten in 1989 from the only place then available - the street - we had to make pilgrimages to distant markets in the hope of arriving on the day the imported supplies of Kit-e-Kat hit the shelves.

Now, not only do we have supermarkets where before there was none, we could bulk-buy tins by the packing case from a new hypermarket. There are whole shops devoted to selling pet food, equipment and the animals themselves.

According to Elcin Unen, chief supplier of Pedigree Chum and Mars bars to Turkey, imports have gone through the kennel roof. Whereas 150 tons of pet food arrived in 1990, 265 tons were bought in 1991 and probably more than 400 tons in 1992.

To care for the beasts, the few old- fashioned corner vets have been overtaken. In one of the smartest parts of Istanbul has risen a purpose- built, five-storey, purple-plastic-and- grey-granite building that houses 'Animalia', the last word in veterinary clinics. Three months old, it boasts a beauty parlour, a fully computerised appointments system and three operating theatres.

'People do come and say, what are you doing, in Turkey we don't have places like this for humans,' said Ilhan Gokgol, 32, the owner and chief doctor. 'But I have dreamed of creating this place for five years. I shouldn't think there's a place like this anywhere else in Europe.'

Not everybody is out for profit. Some animal-lovers have fitted out buses as free-of-charge mobile veterinary hospitals.

Whatever happened to a people whose Muslim religion teaches that people who touch a dog should wash their hands seven times and in whose tradition 'angels cannot enter the house of a dog owner'?

Two youngsters at Animalia said if they found the boxer puppy they were looking for, it would make them the first people in their family to own a dog. 'I live alone and just want a dog for company. My mother definitely would not approve,' said the young girl, leafing through an impromptu handwritten directory of cats, dogs and a stray tiger needing new homes or mates.

The list will doubtless one day grow into a Turkish kennel club. But not everyone loves dogs so much, it seems. A clipboard next to the list was collecting signatures to protest at a government decision to fine anybody walking a dog after midnight the equivalent of pounds 50. It is hard to know where people do exercise their dogs. There are virtually no gardens or parks in Istanbul. Luckily for the dogs, the fashion for ownership started among the space- owning elite. But as Turks get richer, the fashion is filtering down.

'We get a lot of people bringing them (puppies) back after three days. Of course we can't take them back,' said a lad in the Istanbul bazaar, selling cocker spaniel, dachshund and assorted puppies from a crate just in from the Ukraine.

'I've been in pets nine years, dogs three years, it's really changed,' he added. 'Where we used to sell 50, we sell 500, and we are much more careful about age and health.' But some things in the pet business are the same the world over. 'Mainly I reckon it's because people see their neighbours buying them. Then their children want them too.'