Today, April 4th, is World Stray Animals Day, and in honor of that, I'm taking a step back from our normal lighthearted content to talk about an issue that is really very near to my heart.
Street Animals in Turkey
Before I get to far into my post, I wanted to paint a clearer picture of what I mean by street animals in Turkey, because it's vastly different from what you will see in most Western countries (at least the ones I've visited).
Here in Turkey, even in the most densely populated cities, you won't walk more than 2 blocks or visit any public park without seeing a cat or dog (if not several) with no collar and/or a chipped ear. These homeless animals consist of both second generation street animals and abandoned pets who are allowed to live out their lives on the city streets.
Catch and Release
Turkey has program in place to attempt to control the population of street animals. Each city and its local municipalities are to catch, tag, and sterilize stray animals before releasing them back into the neighborhood where they were found.
They are also charged with caring for sick and wounded street animals. These animals too are put back on the streets once they are deemed to be in good health.
Coexisting with Street Animals
Many people in our city love and feed these animals. I won't lie, there's nothing like being greeted by all of your four-legged neighbors when you go for your morning walk. They add an endearing quality to the city. And I have seen some pretty heartwarming examples of kindness shown to these animals:
There's a woman who goes to the park with dog food every morning, rain or shine, at 6:45am to feed all of the animals there.
There's a butcher shop a block away from our home that always feeds bones and scraps to the local cats and dogs.
The city has programs to build cat shelters and leaves out dishes to encourage people to feed and water strays in those areas. They also have an animal ambulance for sick our wounded animals (but there's a catch, more on that later).
But a large number of people also dislike and/or fear them. Culturally and religiously, cleanliness is extremely important, and dogs in particular are seen as dirty animals. And while the majority of animals on the street in our local neighborhood are gentle souls, this isn't always the case, especially when the dogs form packs. This has lead to the mistreatment of animals, to include:
The guard at my son's school kicking a young, confused new street dog that wandered into the school grounds.
Teens at a local park provoking a large male street dog by repeatedly throwing rocks at it to agitate it, then running away.
One of my favorite local stray cats showing up one day with a burnt tail that had to be amputated.
Problems with locals occasionally poisoning food set out for the street animals (I haven't witnessed this first hand, but it has been reported in the news).
In addition to the behavior issues mentioned above, there are other dangers, not only to the street animals, but to general public and their pets, that are often overlooked.
One of the largest among these is disease. Any local vet will tell you that fleas, ticks, and parasites are a massive problem due to the living conditions of animals on the streets. The animals do not receive regular veterinary care, to include rabies vaccinations.
Injury is also a common, though more well known problem. Street animals are often injured by cars or even other street animals (cats are often chased by dogs, and dogs will defend their territory to newcomers).
The System is Broken
The biggest problem faced by these "neighborhood pets" (as some people refer to them) is that no one is responsible for them.
Though the city has programs in place to care for sick and injured animals, this is generally not done proactively. There are far too many animals and far too few resources for them. Residents must call in any incidents and then either transport the animal to the city vet clinic themselves OR (if an emergency) wait for local animal ambulance to arrive.
I personally attempted to use this service once for the cat photographed above, who appeared to have been both sick and hit by a car. After calling 4 times to report the issue, I was finally told they would dispatch an ambulance. I waited with the cat for an hour before calling back only to be told they would not send someone out until morning. When they did finally come, the cat was nowhere to found.
Wile I've been told my experience was an exception to the rule, and that generally the city is really good about helping injured animals, it seems as though the system isn't working the way it's advertised. Almost once per month, new dogs show up in the park, and without fail, they either stay and are not tagged/neutered or they disappear, never to be seen again.
The Problem is Getting Worse
While attempts to have the cities spay/neuter street animals sounds good in theory, the reactive approach towards this (meaning that largely ordinary people are responsible for bringing in animals) means that over population continues to be a problem. Walking less than a mile this morning, I passed 3 pregnant cats - and those were just the ones I saw.
There is no way the city will continue to be able to keep up with the population growth.
A Need for Change
I'm no politician or policy maker, but I think the biggest change that needs to occur is simply a mental one.
People need to understand that animals are not disposable. You can't just get a puppy and then throw it out on the streets when it gets too big or too hyper (90% of the new dogs I see are adolescent males, so yes, this happens, a lot). You can't adopt a cat and then throw it out into the yard of your apartment complex because it starts shedding hair in the springtime (yes, people have actually told me they did this).
They also need to understand that the animals you see on the streets need more than some scraps and a pillow. When you own a pet, you don't just provide it with food and shelter. You tend to their health and well being. You spay/neuter them and them get them vaccinated. And you treat them when they are sick and injured.
And the cities need to be willing to accept this too. If the animals on the street are to be considered community pets and the general public are considered their caretakers, the city needs to make it easier for people to take responsibility for them and do their part in providing the health services they promise them.
Fortunately, we live in a world where social media has tremendous hold and can be helpful in brining about social change. So if you see an occasional post on my accounts about street animals, please know it comes with the best of intentions.