ISTANBUL — Forget the majestic mosques and bustling bazaars. Over the centuries, one of the things that has most consistently captured the imagination of foreign travelers to Istanbul has been … the street dogs.
Amply documented in both 19th century lithographs and 21st century viral videos, Istanbul’s street dogs can today be found patiently waiting to cross at green lights, hitching ferry rides across the Bosporus, marching with protesters and lapping up leftovers and attention outside sidewalk cafes.
Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, whose documentary “Stray” had its U.S. streaming release earlier this month, is the latest visitor to fall under the spell of the city’s canine cohort. Lo says she was struck by “seeing dogs roaming around freely, living life on their own terms, in this very developed city,” and by the relationship she observed between them and Istanbul’s human residents.
“People really see a dignity in the dogs, they see them as fellow citizens, as belonging to their streets and communities,” she says.
Lo’s visually engaging film follows three charismatic canine protagonists, Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal, on their daily rounds through central Istanbul, often at a dog’s-eye view that makes even familiar scenes look fresh. Though scant on narrative or exposition, it alludes to the contested history of dogs in Istanbul and the ever-shifting social and urban dynamics that affect the lives of its canine and human citizens alike.
“People really see a dignity in the dogs, they see them as fellow citizens, as belonging to their streets and communities.”— Elizabeth Lo
Istanbul is home to some 400,000 to 600,000 stray dogs and cats, estimates Ahmet Atalık, who oversees veterinary services for the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. His staff put out food at hundreds of locations around the city, carry out spay-neuter operations, and perform surgeries on injured dogs and cats.
The origins of Istanbul’s dogs are as tough to pin down as their exact numbers. One story holds that they entered Istanbul (then called Constantinople) with the army of Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan who conquered the city from the Byzantines in 1453. An archaeological dig of the Byzantine-era harbor in the city’s Yenikapı area that unearthed hundreds of dog skulls attests to a much earlier presence. But their long-standing role in the life of the city is beyond dispute.
“Historical sources from the Ottoman era show that dogs served as guards for neighborhoods; ate the garbage, since there were no municipal sanitation services; and would bark to alert people when there were fires, which used to happen a lot,” says Kimberly Hart, an anthropologist at SUNY Buffalo State College who studies Istanbul’s street animals as part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage. “But it wasn’t just a functional relationship; it was seen as a good deed to feed and take care of them.”
The bowls of food and water and homemade shelters that modern Istanbul residents place on the streets for the city’s dogs — and its abundant stray cats — hark back to Ottoman times, when mosques had drinking-water troughs for animals, charitable foundations were established to feed them, and travelers described seeing “little straw huts” set up for dogs.
But though dogs have been a resilient presence in Istanbul for centuries, they are also a vulnerable one — as are the homeless Syrian boys who form a pack of sorts with some of the dogs in Lo’s film. When war first broke out in neighboring Syria, Turkey welcomed the refugees. But as their numbers swelled past 3.6 million and the conflict dragged on, the climate became less hospitable. Syrians have been targets of hate speech and even attacks, as have other minority communities, including Armenians, Greeks and Jews. And history shows that dogs can become victims as well.
Attempts have been made to remove or exterminate Istanbul’s dog population since the early 1800s, with periodic mass killings continuing until as recently as the 1990s. Most haunting is the exile in 1910 of 80,000 dogs to Sivriada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the city’s coast. With no food or water on the rocky, uninhabited island, the dogs died slowly and painfully, their howls reportedly carrying across the Sea of Marmara to the mainland. According to local lore, many saw divine punishment in the devastating fire that swept the city in 1911 and the outbreak of World War I, which culminated in the occupation of Istanbul.
Historians attribute these cruel culling campaigns to late-era Ottoman rulers’ attempts to “Westernize” the city by imposing order and cleanliness on its streets as daily life moved from private homes to public spaces. Some accounts even say that complaints about the dogs from Western diplomats and visitors spurred the killings. (Other foreigners helped found the city’s first animal-welfare societies in the 1910s.)
The country’s first animal-protection law was passed in 2004 as part of Turkey’s then-active attempt to join the European Union. Though not always properly observed, it prohibits the killing of strays and requires municipalities to take care of them and keep them in their own neighborhoods. In 2012, animal lovers successfully protested en masse against amendments that would have allowed the removal of animals from city centers.
But just as late-Ottoman rulers saw no place for dogs in their “modernizing” city, many worry that the urbanization processes reshaping Istanbul today will leave no room for them either. “Animals had a place in the social fabric of the ‘mahalle’ [traditional neighborhood], where there are back streets, butcher shops, people who look after them,” says Hart, the anthropologist. “That is being destroyed as Istanbul is being re-created as a city where everything is shiny and bright and brand new.”
And in Lo’s film, the dogs and boys find temporary shelter in a construction site, a symbol of the massive development projects gobbling up many of the city’s old neighborhoods and green spaces.
“We’ve destroyed the rivers where animals used to drink, and cut down the trees that provided shelter for them when it was too hot or too cold,” says Istanbul native Cem Arslan, who founded the Empathy Association to support street animals and their caretakers on Kinalıada, an island neighboring the infamous Sivriada.
“Street animals are also living in this city, and because of rapid urbanization, they require more care and attention,” agrees Atalık of the Istanbul municipality. “Perhaps we are the ones that are occupying their space.”