Animal activists gathered at Polonezköy Square in İstanbul’s Beykoz district at noon on Friday to protest the ongoing poisoning of stray and domestic dogs.
Many residents in the area had contacted the group over the preceding fortnight to report the agonizing deaths of stray animals, many of which are loved and cared for, right before their eyes.
The dog killings of Beykoz are not an isolated case in İstanbul. On paper, Turkey adheres to neuter and release principles in the handling of the stray animal population; often, however, dogs -- even after being treated by municipalities -- are dumped in forests as opposed to being returned to the street where they were initially captured, as per the law, where hundreds of volunteers visit to feed them each weekend. Such violations of the law and the animals’ right to life do not stop there: It is not uncommon for municipal teams to return to these areas and “finish the job” if the dumped animals are not already dead from starvation and disease.
Yasemin Baban, an activist from the Beykoz area, told Sunday’s Zaman that necropsy reports on the dogs killed in the area confirm poisoning as the cause of death.
One local resident, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of attracting the attention of local officials, said they had reason to believe the Beykoz Municipality was behind the killings. Unsurprisingly, officials deny any involvement. The sad truth is that even hard evidence, such as camera footage capturing a municipal vehicle dumping dogs, or feeding them suspicious-looking food items at an unusual hour, is useless. Under Turkey’s Animal Protection Law No. 5199 killing an animal is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine only, with no jail time or a black mark on one’s criminal record. This means even if Beykoz activists identified the culprit they could only sue for those dogs with owners on grounds of “damaging property.” Whether conducted privately or by the state, the killings would go virtually unpunished.
The good news is that after years of lobbying by animal welfare groups Turkey is finally changing this law and classifying cruelty to animals as a real crime.
Much controversy over new law
In February all four parties in Parliament agreed -- shockingly, with no objections -- to such an amendment. “The amendment is now at the prime minister’s office, and those who kill stray animals will not only be fined but will also serve time in prison,” Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu told journalists at a biodiversity conference in Ankara on Tuesday.
It sounds like good news. But the drafted amendment has not yet been made public, and activists are already concerned. For one thing, rumors in circulation suggest the amendment may include breed-specific articles, a concept that is already having an impact on the ground. “They dumped four pit bulls only yesterday at my shelter,” says Nesrin Özkaya Aydın, an activist who volunteers at the Küçükçekmce shelter.
Do legislators hate animals?
Ahmet Kemal Şenpolat, head of the Animal Rights Federation (HAYTAP), an organization that has lobbied actively for a new law 5199 for years, notes that the state has always supported pet shops and dog breeders -- even illegal ones, by ignoring their activities -- and blamed the increasing number of stray animals on a handful of animal rescuers who lack the resources that moneyed pet shop owners have to garner public support. Since nobody has seen the final draft of the new law, which is yet to be discussed in a parliamentary commission, activists don’t really know if the state’s unofficial support for dog breeders in Turkey, who only contribute to the ridiculously high demand for pets, some of which will end up abandoned on the street, and their active hindrance of the activities of animal rescuers will remain in the spirit of the new law.
Still, something good has to come out of the change. Emel Var, a representative of the Avcılar-Esenyurt Animal Protection Group, notes: “It is good news that individuals who abuse, beat or torture animals, rear dangerous breeds and import them into Turkey will be eligible to serve time in prison. Such atrocities will be recorded in their criminal records, and I think this will have a deterrent effect.”
Var reiterates concerns that both the state and legislators all too often choose to victimize animals and support, or even pamper, those who breed, sell, dump or abuse them. However, the new legislation makes it mandatory for first-time dog owners to attend instructional sessions, which Var notes might also serve to prevent the abandonment of domestic pets.
Past experience with amendments to legislation, government, municipality or ministry practices and the human-centric approach of authorities is reason enough for any animal rights campaigner to take the amendment with a grain -- if not a shaker -- of salt. However, as Küçükçekmece shelter volunteer Aydın puts it: “Let’s wait and see. At any rate, it can’t possibly be any worse than it is now.”
27 May 2012 / E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ , İSTANBUL