Sirius and the stray dogs in Turkey

In this post I would like to address an issue that has accompanied me since my early childhood and always contributed both excitement and sadness to my vacations in Turkey:

free-roaming stray dogs and cats. When I was a child I was always happy to make furry friends in summer, to feed them and pet them; but as an adult I am aware of the problems that arise with this state of being. No one knows exactly how many street cats and dogs there are in Turkey and even though I tried to find statistics, there was no reliable nationwide source that could give me an answer. The estimates however mention 7 figured numbers.  In Istanbul alone, a city of 11.3 million people, there are at least 150,000 free-roaming dogs.  The Turkish federal government passed a law a few years ago requiring cities to control the roaming dogs.  But only very few cities have all the resources they need to effectively control the loose animals.  Statesmen have fretted over what to do about the population for as much time (Mark Twain even recorded his thoughts in his notes from his visit saying he had never seen such “doleful and broken hearted stray dogs” anywhere else in his life) Cats and dogs can be seen running around in parks, sleeping in street corners or even sitting in business doorways.

While cats are mostly tolerated, dogs are a divisive topic among residents. Depending on the neighborhood or even city the attitudes vary. In the more conservative and in the more underprivileged neighborhoods the dogs are considered to be unclean and dangerous nuisances which the citizens would prefer removed. A lack of interaction with dogs as pets, has made the people fearful and react accordingly – something I experience every year when I adopt a few ill stray-dogs from the street and care for them until they regain full health and until a loving family willing to give them a forever home is found. When walking the dogs to get them used to the leash, children and women always quickly cross to the other side of the street (often screaming or warning each other to not get bitten…) and there is never a shortage of nasty looks and the occasional comment. Some of the bored neighborhood children always make a gleeful pastime in taunting the dogs behind the safety of our fence! I can’t tell you the countless number of times I told them to give the dogs some peace and to stop hurting or scaring them, windows only to have them giggle, scatter and return five minutes later with more ammunition. It is always stressful. Many people are not only afraid of dog bites (a fear even children and most of my friends who never even had any interaction with dogs with hae) but also of diseases. The strategy being tried in Turkey to control the spread of diseases is called Trap, Tag and Release program where the dogs are captured, treated for minor illnesses, vaccinated, sterilized/castrated, ear-tagged for identification and then rereleased back into their neighborhood. Unofrtunately however, many dogs get highly mistreated during the capture. It is hoped that the populations of free-roaming dogs will decline because they are not breeding and the small populations that are left will be healthier and will not present a public health hazard.  This is based on the assumption that the majority of the free-roaming dogs come from the breeding of other free-roaming dogs, and not from owned dogs that escaped, or were dumped by their owners. Because population demographics are unavailable (e.g. no one knows where the street dogs come from) it is unclear if the Turkish strategy will be effective. We’ll have to wait and see.

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As mentioned, ever since my childhood my mom and I always come across a stray-dog in need for care and a vet or are even given seemingly hopeless little kittens and pups.  Four weeks ago I found a dirty, completely malnourished dog who looked like a walking carpet due to his gigantic dreadlocks that almost reached the floor. The way he was wiggling his tail and gave me that friendly look from under his bangs touched me and I petted him until he was lying on the floor, contently stretching his legs and letting me rub his belly. We fed him and gave him water, a gesture that made him start following me everywhere. That night he slept on our front porch and did not move until we finished breakfast. I decided to take him in and started cutting off the big dreadlocks that had performed particularly on his sides and butt (some having a width of 4 cm) After about an hour of cutting off the locks and knots in his fur (a time he happily passed with chewing on a treat) and about another hour of combing out the winter coat he still had not shed and trimming the remaining fur, a beautiful boy, resembling a black Hovawart (similar to a black colored Golden Retriever) wiggled his tail at me. Not only was this dog beautiful by his looks, but also his character: kind to children and cats (a rarity among streetdogs), calm yet playful.

In the following month I formed a deep bond with him and he started to follow me everywhere and would not leave my doorstep until I would come out the door. When I went to Bodrum, a gorgeous coastal city, for two days, he did not move away from the house and patiently waited for me to return. Due to his coat color and his character, nd particularly because of how he looked when we first found him, I named him Sirius. Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is a binary star whose companion is a white dwarf star referred to as the Pup. It’s Scientific name is Alpha Canis.  And of course, all Harry Potter fans will realize the reference to Sirius Black, who also at first looked frightening but turned out to have a beautiful heart.  The more time I spend with Sirius, the more I got attached to him. Every morning around 10am we would go swimming together, racing the last few metres at the beach to the water. He was a remarkable swimmer and often we would cross the markings that enclose our residences’ swimming area. When I dived down, he would immediately jump after me and try to pull me back to the surface.

Both my mother and me decided that we could not just feed him for the summer, and so we got him vaccinated at the local veterinarian and asked for his ID papers to be made. I really wanted to take him to Berlin with me, both to have a companion and pet and also to provide a permanent home where he would be loved.  In Europe dogs are accepted, loved and respected as a member of the family. Most families in Europe share their life with more than one pet in the house. Furthermore, in EU countries animal rights are protected by law which dictate strict penalties for cruelty towards animals. Which brings me to the next point:

In the hope that we would be able to take him to Germany I researched the required process to bring a dog into the country and found out – with large frustration and disappointment – that my plan would not turn out to be that easy. Due to the fact that Turkey is not an EU country and because it is listed on a second list for disease risks, taking him home with me requires the approval of a EU vet located in Ankara, a three month waiting period, quarantine and various blood tests also stamped by the vet in Ankara.

The difficulty of getting Sirius to Ankara (we would have to take him by car), made me fear for him and so I started looking for a home that would be willing to adopt him. During that process I taught him the basic commandoes like “sit”, “wait”, etc. and got him used to walking on a leash – which he did remarkably well (he stopped pulling and walking in front of me immediately after his first few training sessions).

Unfortunately, in Turkey where it is not traditional to have dogs as pets, rehoming is very rare. Dogs have been accepted in houses and gardens in the last ten years in modern cities of Turkey as a symbol of status but still people prefer to buy “pure-bred” dogs from pet shops some of which soon end up in shelters or fall victim to behavioral problems and diseases as a result of bad breeding practices in puppy mills that supply the pet shops (Puppy mills are large-scale commercial dog breeding operation that places profit over the well-being of its dogs—who are often severely neglected—and acts without regard to responsible breeding practices)

We are currently undergoing the paperwork process in Izmir to get Sirius to Germany with us and found him a beautiful temporary home at my favorite horseback ranch in Kusadasi.

If you are interested in supporting the initiative to spay and neuter, a foundation I like can be visited by clicking here

Additionally, for a little bit of positivity, check out this great new invention in Istanbul: A special vending machine dispenses food for stray dogs when people insert recyclable bottles and cans. Click here to get to the article.