Turkey’s Erdogan shows bark and bite by targeting stray dogs in culture war

Turkish president orders stray dogs into shelters derided as ‘death camps’ and accuses pet owners of elitism

Borzou Daragahi
Wednesday 29 December 2021 07:00 GMT
Related video: Boji the dog explores Istanbul on his own using public transportation

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Louise Thomas

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Faced with soaring inflation, sliding approval ratings, and scepticism by international partners, Turkey’s president has set upon an unusual new culprit: dogs, which have become a source of controversy and a political wedge issue in the polarised country.

In a Christmas Day speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on city officials across Turkey to round up often beloved stray dogs, which are frequently allowed to roam free in public squares and streets, and demanded that so-called “white Turks” – shorthand for the country’s Europe-oriented secular elite – mind their pets.

"White Turks, take responsibility for your animals,” he said in the speech. “These dogs are the dogs of the wealthy.”

The speech came after a pair of pitbulls attacked and seriously wounded a four-year-old girl in the southern city of Gaziantep in a 22 December incident captured on video.

The two dogs were not strays, though some accounts claimed they had been abandoned by their owner, whose socio-economic status was unclear. Unlike the Aegean Sea region or the big cities, Gaziantep is known as a bastion of conservative supporters of Mr Erdogan rather than white Turks.

“I consider it an important service to remove stray animals from the streets and move them to clean and safe environments,” Mr Erdogan said in a tweet. “I call on all our municipalities to quickly take steps to ensure the safety of our citizens and protect lives.”

Turks took to social media to defend the maligned mutts, decrying the state of the country’s animal shelters. “Stray animals” has been the top trending hashtag on Turkish social media over the last several days.

“They cannot talk. They don’t steal. They just want food and affection,” one user on Twitter wrote. “This is not what they deserve.”

The controversy over stray dogs is rooted in the country’s political divisions.

Mr Erdogan’s pious Muslim base of supporters tend to think of the animals as unclean, in keeping with some Islamic teachings that have little if any basis in the Koran. The president’s secular opponents tend to be more pro-pooch.

In general, shelters are trauma and death camps for animals

Mine Vural, animal rights activist

His leading challenger, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, in October made a media star of one stray dog named Boji, who roamed the tramways, ferries and metros, and was doted on by passengers and passersby.

One day in November, social media accounts associated with pro-Erdogan activists began posting photos of alleged dog excrement on an Istanbul tram, accusing Boji of being behind the mess. But in a mind-boggling development, security camera footage emerged showing a man planting the poop that was pinned on Boji, in a likely political stunt to tarnish Mr Imamoglu.

Turkey is politically divided between supporters and opponents of Mr Erdogan. The most recent opinion polls show Turkey’s longtime leader, his Justice Development Party and its far-right coalition partner are likely to lose to Mr Imamoglu or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas and a likely alliance of opposition parties in scheduled 2023 elections.

Turkey is also facing its gravest economic crisis in two decades, with the currency falling to record lows and inflation above 25 per cent, draining Turks’ savings. Some have accused the president of using dogs to distract from his other troubles.

In any case, Turks of all political and cultural affinities seem to adore stray cats and even dogs.

They build elaborate streetside “apartments” for street cats and feed butchers’ scraps to stray dogs, which often have tags on their ears signifying vaccination by volunteer veterinarians.

A stray dog wanders around Istanbul’s Taksim Square on 28 December
A stray dog wanders around Istanbul’s Taksim Square on 28 December (Yusuf Sayman)

In the Istanbul district of Kadikoy, a statue memorialises a beloved stray dog named Tarcin (“Cinnamon” in English). In some Aegean Sea cities and towns, strays bark wildly and act erratically ahead of earthquakes and tremors, serving as a valued early-warning system for potential natural disasters in one of the most seismically active regions of the world.

Even pro-government Turkish news outlets regularly tout heartwarming accounts of ordinary citizens helping strays, or strays befriending and aiding people. Just last month, the staunchly pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak publicised the tale of a man saving a stray puppy that had been hit by a car, taking it and its distraught mother to a local veterinarian.

But after framing dog ownership as a signifier of cultural identity, Mr Erdogan has now avowedly embraced an anti-canine platform, and pro-government media outlets have followed his lead, calling for the clearing out of strays.

The president has benefited from the support of pious Turks resentful of the perceived cultural status and economic privileges of the country’s secular old guard.

Animal lovers were up in arms after the Ministry of Environment on Monday ordered the country’s 81 municipal governments to round up stray dogs and stick them in shelters, which many fear is a death sentence. While some animal shelters have higher standards, most are known to be rife with abuse.

“In general in Turkey, shelters are trauma and death camps for animals,” Mine Vural, an animal rights activist and veterinary technician in Istanbul, known as the “Animal Nurse” for her passionate activism on behalf of stray dogs and cats, told The Independent.

“They are for imprisoning and warehousing dogs. They are cold, and very dirty.”

Yusuf Sayman contributed reporting

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