Animals in the city: One day in Sarıyer
Our second urban excursion this year took place on February 17th. To keep exploring the topic of nature in the city, we went to the northernmost part of Istanbul, to Kısırkaya (Sarıyer). Our second excursion’s subject was “animals in the city”, and to study that, anthropologist Berna Ekal was leading us.
Kısırkaya refuge was our first stop, as it is a significant turn in terms of animal life in the city. Indeed, Istanbul (as well as other urban areas in the country) is known for “street animals” it accommodates, mainly cats and dogs. These are not “stray animals”; rather, the inhabitants of the city, who usually feed and take care of them, accept their presence. However, especially in the case of dogs, it is also possible to observe fear or mistreatment.
Established by Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi, Kısırkaya refuge (barınak or bakımevi in Turkish) was opened early 2015. It is constructed on former wetlands, close to the Black Sea, and is part of the recent years’ urbanization trend of northern Istanbul. It was built on mera (collective pasture land) rented by the Municipality. Buffalos still graze inside the barınak.
Its enormousness is the first thing that strikes you. It is a modern and clean facility, composed by small houses scattered on a broad site, surrounded by fences. This refuge is the first developed by the Metropolitan Municipality on the European side. It was possible to observe that the Municipality has invested a significant amount in it.
This complex gives a feeling of emptiness. Maybe because it has a capacity of 4 000 dogs but it only accommodates 500 dogs at one time for now. 18 vets and around 100 staff members are working there. A lot of dogs barking resonated while we crossed the property. We met two vets. And they told us the reason why they do not fill all the small houses is their policy of “neuter-treat-and-release”. Indeed, Animal Protection Bill Law no. 5199 states in its Article 6: “Ownerless and incapacitated animals must be brought as quickly as possible to animal shelters established or permitted by the local authorities. These animals will first be held in the observation areas established in these centers. It is a principle that animals that have been neutered, vaccinated and rehabilitated will be registered and released into the environment that they were taken from”. However, it is possible that the refuge might work with full capacity in the near future, as the Metropolitan Municipality plans to rent the remaining buildings to local municipalities.
The refuge primarily takes care of dogs. They neuter and treat them, they insert a chip on them and create a folder for each one in order to follow-up, and after that, they release them in the same area where they were caught. The refuge offers modern X-ray and surgery equipment. When asked how many street dogs are living in Istanbul now, the vets answered that it is really tough to figure out. One estimates 60 000 dogs, whereas according to the other, it is around 100 000. Only one building is dedicated to cats, because it is more complicated to catch street cats.
This refuge has been criticized by NGOs, who work on the issue of animal welfare, for being very far from inhabited areas (therefore isolating animals from urban life) and for being in a windy and cold zone that is not suitable for animals. Our two vet guides meant to underline, however, that they are doing a good job with animals. They pointed out that the animal shelter neither put down nor abort street dogs. They only keep small dogs and disabled dogs, whose one leg or one eye is missing for example, as these dogs are unable to live on the streets by themselves. The vets highlighted the difference between this refuge and the disadvantaged ones managed by districts’ municipalities. One vet even said that, according to him, this refuge is better than the ones in the United States, primarily because of the fact that in Turkey, law do not foresee putting down animals without owners apart from the situations set forth in the Animal Health Police Law no. 3285.
Then, our second stage was an encounter with Zekeriyaköy’s muhtar. The muhtar seemed to be more worried about population densification and land transfers than question of animals in the city. She told us that government is buying military lands, and according to her this was in order to have vacant lands for future TOKI projects. Indeed NGOs also criticise the construction of the Kısırkaya barınak as a way to open the land to future urbanization and development. This fear is also readable in the muhtar’s speech. Besides, she also told us that Zekeriyaköy has a long-standing rural tradition that is now declining, and that humans are actually taking hold of areas which were once inhabited by wild animals, therefore disturbing animals. In olden times, jackals were living around the village and inhabitants were observing their behaviours to know if it would rain, for instance. But, nowadays, new inhabitants are afraid of stray animals. In a backyard of Zekeriyaköy, we can see hunting dogs kept in a kennel, reminders of this other relationship with the forest and the wild animals.
Eventually, our third stage occurred in Zekeriyaköy Kooperatif. It is an association of inhabitants of a gated community developed in the 1980s by Koç and Garanti companies. Zekeriyaköy Kooperatif is improving actions for environmental conservation and protection of street animals. They present themselves as a kind of alternative municipality, providing better service to their members than the municipal services. For instance, Zekeriyaköy Kooperatif has instituted a program in order to care for street dogs, because they think they have to do that, because of Sarıyer barınak’s poor condition. At the same time, the Kooperatif is trying to convert vacant spaces into parks (for dogs’ walks) in order to avoid new constructions on these spaces and to protect these green spaces that had once attracted the residents of the Kooperatif. Like the muhtar before, these inhabitants are afraid of TOKI projects in the area.
Hence, common thread of this urban excursion was the room left for animals in the cities but also the transformation of the relation between human and animals be they wild animal, street animal and domesticated one. Current shapes of our cities, with their artificial nature, are not any longer suitable for animal life, that’s why there is a need to take care of it.