Over the years, since being set loose, the golden retrievers had gotten good at surviving on the streets of Istanbul.
More than a decade ago, the dogs — most of them purebreds — were prized by their owners. Long since abandoned, they roamed the streets begging for food and living under bridges; the lucky ones spent years in shelters throughout the Turkish city.
On Saturday, the dogs made it back to the other side. With the help of Adopt a Golden Atlanta, 36 abandoned golden retrievers landed in the United States. They were given new names, such as “Freedom,” “Patriot” “Justice” and “Glory,” and began a process that the rescue agency hopes will culminate in the new, permanent, homes for each of the animals.
Adopt a Golden Atlanta, one of the largest golden retriever rescues on the East Coast spent thousands of dollars transporting the dogs in an effort to help ease the overcrowding in Istanbul’s shelters.
“About 10 years ago, the golden retriever was seen as a status symbol,” Lauren Genkinger, founder and president of Adopt a Golden Atlanta, told The Washington Post in an interview. “They were becoming very popular in Italy and Germany, so some of the pet stores in Turkey started importing the puppies. Then, about three years went by, and it’s no longer a status symbol because so many of people own them.”
Even when the dogs were parts of households in Turkey, they were typically kept outside. When owners no longer wanted them or couldn’t take care of them, they called the municipal animal control, which would spay and neuter the dogs, then release them to the streets — or worse, to forests.
In 2012, animal activists in Turkey fought against a proposal to move stray animals to “natural habitat parks” on the outskirts of the city. They argued that the practice would be akin to giving the animals a death sentence.
Golden retrievers in particular, Genkinger said, did not fare well in the wild with more aggressive dogs.
“Golden retrievers don’t survive there,” Genkinger said. “They don’t fight back.”
Istanbul’s struggle with a large population of stray animals dates back more than 100 years. Some people estimate that the number of stray dogs on the city’s streets exceeds 50,000 — not including the dogs that live in the city’s 30-plus animal shelters.
While stray cats have special status on the streets of Istanbul, the Associated Press noted, stray dogs are seen as unclean:
Stray dogs are considered more of a nuisance and sanitation threat than cats, and Islamic tradition — while espousing tolerance for all creatures — labels them unclean. In 1910, Istanbul officials unloaded tens of thousands of stray dogs on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where they starved.
In recent years, however, purebred dogs have been drawn into the tug-of-war between East and West in Turkey.
In 2012, writer Bernd Brunner noted in his essay “The Wild Dogs of Istanbul” that some combination of religion and traditional beliefs have caused Muslims to keep dogs at arm’s length, but that in parts of the city influenced by the West, people sought out purebreds as a status symbol:
In parts of Istanbul influenced by the West, all sorts of purebred dogs can be found, including traditional fighting breeds. In these cases, dogs are highly desirable status symbols, and many stores sell pet supplies. However, problems with religious neighbors disturbed by the presence of dogs can arise. “Many people want a dog, but don‘t know how to go about it,” says Bilge Okay of the dog protection society SHKD, which works toward better treatment of the animals.
When owners could no longer keep the dogs, the ones that weren’t euthanized ended up on the street.
Genkinger first heard about the situation in Istanbul in January and spent months trying to find out how to bring the dogs to America. She says that most U.S. adoption organizations have wait lists for golden retrievers. And these dogs won’t displace any dogs already in the United States that might need potential homes.
“I want these golden retrievers to be happy and have a better life,” Yasemin Baban, the lead shelter volunteer in Istanbul, said in a statement. “I want them to find love and affection, a home to live in, and a cushion to sleep on.”
They are being groomed, fed, and given medical treatment in the Atlanta area until the rescue can find foster homes.
The dogs also need to learn English, so several Turkish-speaking volunteers are helping house-train them before they are put up for adoption.
“They have never been in a home, they have never had a toy,” Genkinger said. “They have had to beg for food in the streets of Istanbul. This is all a huge adjustment.”
The entire effort has also been extremely costly — well over $1,000 was spent to transport each dog to Atlanta. And hundreds more will be spend on medical care, training, food, housing and grooming.
The rescue has so far received 20 donations of $1,000 to cover some of the costs. And each dog will be offered for adoption at a $600 fee. Genkinger says they the rescue hopes to receive more donor-generated funding to cover the rest of the costs.
“Adoption rates in Turkey don’t exist because there are so many dogs on the streets,” Genkinger said. “I hope that there will be no more golden retrievers on the streets and that people will adopt them. If they see that they’re desirable here, maybe they’ll adopt.”