Istanbul’s streets are safe for stray dogs — can Pakistan follow its lead?

Published 01 Jan, 2021 11:35am

Istanbul's relationship with its four-legged residents is based on mutual respect and peaceful co-existence.

Stray dog caught in a net for the Trap, Neuter and Release programme in Karachi | White Star
Stray dog caught in a net for the Trap, Neuter and Release programme in Karachi | White Star

Opposite the Republic Monument on Taksim Square is one of Istanbul’s furry tourist attractions — a large Turkish Kungal that has made the last aisle in Watson, a store, its favourite napping spot. As passing tourists take pictures with or of it, depending on their comfort with dogs, a green tag catches their attention — an accessory that seems to be a must-have with canines who call the streets of Istanbul their home.

But this store isn’t the only space that welcomes strays. Cats and dogs alike can be seen strolling in and out of cafes, around the Hagia Sofia Square and even the royal palace. The city’s strays — around 160,000 cats and 130,000 dogs — are vaccinated, sterilised, marked and tracked by the government and NGOs.

Bowls of food and water on street corners depict the city’s relationship with its four-legged residents: mutual respect and peaceful co-existence.

The tradition of feeding strays dates back to the Ottoman Empire, when butchers were paid monthly wages to feed dogs. Earlier this year, when the city went into lockdown, the interior ministry ordered the local councils to “bring food and water to animal shelters, parks” and upheld the tradition.

But, the strays of Istanbul weren’t always this lucky.

In 1909, the municipality shipped them to an island in the Marmara Sea, without any food or freshwater. The winds carried their howls through the city. As they starved to death, their desperate pleas were replaced by the rotting stench of their corpses. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, municipalities used the most inhumane, painful, and ineffective method: poison. A quick fix strategy that reduced the dog populations overnight and made governments seem competent and in control.

Istanbul’s streets are safe for strays — a change that was sparked by accepting the idea that animals have as much right to be here as us. Can Pakistan follow its lead?

Repulsed by the barbarity, activists used social media to stir the public into action, sparking demonstrations that eventually forced the Turkish government to pass a law in 2004: local governments could rehabilitate but were forbidden to kill stray dogs.

Public pressure also “forced the government to provide services like regular feeding and medical checks by trained veterinarians.” Didem Tali writes in her piece for The New York Times, “It took 15 years of legislative changes, local initiatives and grassroots activism to make the city more humane.”

Meanwhile in Karachi, in 2006, authorities culled thousands of strays using strychnine and by gunning them down. Cash rewards were offered to encourage the public to join in — turning it into a hunting sport of man versus dog. Piles of bodies were bulldozed and dumped.

Year after year, the authorities would stir into action and start another barbaric campaign to eliminate dogs who managed to survive and reproduce. Fourteen years later, the situation and strategy remained unchanged.

In December 2019, 34,000 strays were culled in Sindh. By October 2020, that count was at 116,000.

And yet, as the year comes to an end, the pye-dog population, dog bite cases and rabies continue to be a growing problem in Sindh.

Districts such as Larkana and Nawabashah run counterproductive culling campaigns, killing dogs while providing them with garbage dumps — perfect breeding grounds to survive and reproduce quickly. A female gives birth to three to four litters per year. That’s roughly 12 pups for every female who hasn’t been neutered, thus rendering all poisoning efforts useless.

Which is why the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA strongly advocate Animal Birth Control (ABC) through Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) to be the most effective and humane way. ABC recommends that strays should be captured, vaccinated, neutered, tagged or collared and then released back on the streets. To be effective, at least 70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated and sterilised.  Today, Turkey along with Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, UAE, Egypt, Brazil, Greece and Kenya are implementing ABC.

Recycling bins in Istanbul dispense food for stray dogs and cats|Rachael Ruble/Twitter
Recycling bins in Istanbul dispense food for stray dogs and cats|Rachael Ruble/Twitter

Sri Lanka and Mexico have successfully eliminated rabies using mass dog vaccination (MDV). Their success boils down to political will, which ensured post-exposure prophylaxis was free and available.

Last year, the PC-1 of the Rabies Control Programme was devised by the government with an aim to sterilise and vaccinate 500,000 stray dogs within a year. It failed to launch because of lack of political will and corruption, leading to a petition filed against the government demanding answers.

It is now under the new Local Government secretary Najam Ahmed Shah that the situation is beginning to look promising. The court has instructed the Department of Health to release doses, and a revised PC-1 is in the pipes — a more practical plan that has Rabies Free Pakistan (RFP) as its technical adviser and involves the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock to ensure proper implementation.

Meanwhile, smaller private initiatives such as the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF), RFP and shelters continue to drive the change. RFP, a private sector initiative, was launched in 2018 by Getz Pharma and The Indus Hospital with an aim to reach ‘Zero by 2030’.

“Rabies is 100 percent vaccine-preventable, which is why RFP’s mandate includes mass dog vaccination (MDV), animal birth control (ABC) and working towards co-existence.” explains Dr Wajiha Javed who is the Project Director of RFP and the Head of Public Health and Research at Getz.

Her teams have vaccinated over 35,000 dogs in Karachi, and sterilised over 10,000 dogs in areas such as Korangi, Landhi, Karachi South, and Saddar.

“The females are surgically spayed while the males are chemically castrated. The animals are tagged, either in neon green or red collars and ear-notched before they are released back to their areas,” she says.

As part of their efforts, RFP also trains KMC workers and aims at community buy-ins. But for this, they need approvals which are easier to obtain if the local authorities are willing.

Ayesha Chundrigar founded the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF) in 2013, the first and largest animal rescue and shelter in Pakistan, and has been raising her voice against animal abuse. She has rescued and rehabilitated over 7,000 animals so far and her team rescues between five to 15 abused animals per day.

She tries to speak from an animal’s perspective on ACF’s social media platforms and shares their stories. However, the horrific images of abuse, acid attacks, beaten and starved animals with severe injuries and broken spirits really make her wonder about our collective in-depth capacity for empathy.

Both teams believe long term success will only come from a change in mindsets. This is why alongside MVD and ABC, they run awareness campaigns on co-existence in schools and districts to educate children, workers and residents.

“Our people lack empathy. A dog will not bite unless it is rabid or provoked,” Dr Javed says. “A passerby will tease a dog minding its own business by pelting it with stones, and provoke it for fun.”

“We give basic education on understanding animal behaviour: don’t go near a dog protecting its garbage dump, as that’s his food resource, or a mother dog protecting her pups. Our campaign of ‘neighbourhood pets’ encourage people to leave out leftovers for the strays in their vicinity,”  Ayesha says.

But it’s not always people living in close proximity to the dogs that always harm them.

“The general complaint that drives authorities into large scale culling is ‘there are lots of dogs and they bark’,” Ayesha explains.

These complaints result in commissioners taking action and the next day, tagged strays are found dead.

“It all boils down to tolerance, empathy and accepting the idea that animals have as much right to be here as us,” Ayesha emphasises. “I don’t want to run a shelter for abused animals. A shelter overflowing with animals means I have failed in my purpose.”

It is the streets that need to be safe, just like they are for the strays of Istanbul.

Zofishan Umair is a humour columnist, journalist and fiction writer based in Karachi. She tweets @Zofishan

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 27th, 2020