Photo by Flickr user Amrit Patel
Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey and one of the most populous in the world, is home to millions of people and thousands of stray dogs. These dogs roam freely through the streets, shops, mosques and traffic, living alongside humans in a unique and complex relationship that spans centuries.
The history of Istanbul’s stray dogs is marked by periods of conflict and harmony, persecution and protection, indifference and affection. In the Ottoman era, the dogs were considered part of the city’s fabric and culture, tolerated and even respected by the authorities and the public. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Turkey underwent modernization and westernization, the dogs were seen as a nuisance and a threat to public health and order. Several attempts were made to exterminate or exile them, often met with resistance and outrage from animal lovers and activists.
In 2004, after decades of protests and campaigns, Turkey passed a law that made it illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog. Instead, the dogs are vaccinated, neutered, tagged and released back to their territories. The law also encourages local municipalities to provide food, water and shelter for the dogs, as well as to educate the public about animal welfare and responsible pet ownership.
Today, Istanbul’s stray dogs enjoy a relatively peaceful and comfortable existence, thanks to the efforts of various organizations, volunteers and citizens who care for them. Many of the dogs have formed bonds with human communities such as shopkeepers, fishermen, garbage collectors, refugees and tourists. Some of them have even become celebrities, with their own social media accounts and fan clubs.
A recent documentary film by Elizabeth Lo, titled Stray, captures the lives of three stray dogs in Istanbul: Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal. The film follows them as they wander through the city’s streets, alleys and parks, encountering different people and situations. The film also explores the themes of value, hierarchy and sentience, as well as the parallels between the dogs’ marginalization and that of other oppressed groups in society.
In 2016, another documentary film by Ceyda Torun, titled Kedi, focused on the city’s stray cats. Both films have received critical acclaim and international recognition for their portrayal of Istanbul’s unique animal-human relationship.
Istanbul’s stray dogs are more than just animals. They are symbols of the city’s history, culture and identity. They are also reminders of the importance of coexistence and compassion in a world that is often divided and hostile.