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Türkiye’s Stray Dog Issue Complicated But Solvable: Animal Psychologist

One of Türkiye’s few animal psychologists, Tamer Dodurka, gave an exclusive interview to Daily Sabah on how to deal with the problems arising from stray dogs

The problem of stray dogs has been under the spotlight in Türkiye for years due to the recent attacks on people, even though the country is otherwise famous for its love and respect for stray animals.

I discussed this issue in Daily Sabah in a previous article. I approached both sides of the debate and received opinions from stray animal associations, veterinarians and associations defending those suffering from the stray dog problem. I also wrote an opinion article examining the damage caused by the parties who exaggerate the issue on social media and the polarization surrounding the topic.

It might be safe to say that this issue, which has not yet been completely resolved, is still being debated in Türkiye. The fact that it is the most complained about concern submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly Petition Commission, which examines the wishes and complaints of citizens to Parliament, is pretty telling in itself.

At the same time, it is clear that polarization still reigns supreme in Turkish society when facts are considered. While some petitions contain requests such as collecting stray dogs, neutering them and removing them from residential areas, there are also demands such as the closure of an internet platform established to draw attention to the problems caused by stray dogs and the closure of an association that allegedly “targets stray animals by misinforming the society.”

The issue again came to the forefront after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent statement: “We will implement the same practices in solving this issue as developed countries and Europe.”

With this statement, the practices and legal regulations in Europe began to be discussed, and people, naturally, started to wonder if there was a successful practice in Europe that could be implemented in Türkiye as well.

With the regulations regarding stray animals in Europe continuing to be examined by the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye Research Services Directorate and the issue remaining hot, one of Türkiye’s few animal psychologists, Tamer Dodurka, gave an exclusive interview to Daily Sabah on the subject.

Stating that “unfortunately there is no gold standard for the solution,” Dodurka said: “Management of the dog population varies from place to place, let alone from country to country. Socio-economic and cultural differences are very decisive in this regard. While the West’s relationship with animals is based on self-interest, our history is full of examples of compassion for animals. Their bloody history cannot be compared to our history. Our mythology is not about relationships of interest but about sharing life and nature with many different animal species and merging with them. These cultural codes in our people cannot be erased.”

“Great brutalities were committed against animals as well as humans during the rule of the Europeans, who were fed by the teachings of Aristotle, who argued that a powerful person had the right to do anything over primitive beings such as enslave humans or animals,” he added.

“For example, once upon a time, Black people were exhibited as slaves in a zoo in Belgium. It is no wonder that the mentality that treats people like this also approves the killing of animals,” said Dodurka, emphasizing that the Turkish nation, which grew up with maxims such as “Love the created for the creator’s sake” will not allow such sins to be committed against humans or animals, thanks to both its faith and cultural codes.

The ‘Hayırsızada’ incident

“The incident of the Hayırsızada and those who caused it are still cursed, and this incident is often mentioned as the shame of this country,” he added, referring to the exile in which more than 80,000 stray dogs living in Istanbul were collectively sent to Sivriada – which would later be renamed as “Hayırsızada” (“Wicked Island” in Turkish) – off the coast of Istanbul and abandoned there in 1910.

Stating that the only difference between countries is not in human nature and that the types of free-roaming dogs also vary from country to country, Dodurka said: “Almost no other European country has the same type of dogs bred in rural areas or produced and released into the wild as we do. For these and similar reasons, no country can be compared to another, and solution methods are not similar. The applications are already different from each other.”

“While in some European countries, dogs without owners are kept in kennels and eventually killed, this is prohibited in some countries, such as Germany. Again, the laws in Italy, Greece and Czechia do not allow the killing of stray animals,” he added.

Dodurka further said that President Erdoğan’s statement that the practices in Europe will be implemented should be understood as “we will use the same practices that are successful in Europe if they are suitable for our country,” and added: “Who would want something that is not suitable? As long as what is appropriate and what is not can be analyzed well.”

Stating that the countries that are successful in this regard in Europe are the countries that best implement animal protection laws, Dodurka said: “On the contrary, in the newly joined countries, especially in Eastern European countries, the effectiveness of animal protection laws is weak and the rate of compliance with the law is insufficient. Problems are experienced more in these countries.”

Dodurka also underlined that if the Animal Protection Law No. 5199, which was enacted after President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, and later revised, were well implemented by institutions, they would not need to look for European examples.

Stating that veterinary organizations are very strong in the most successful countries in this regard, such as Germany, Dodurka said: “In this way, the system of registration and identification of animals, which is the most important part of the solution to the problem, is also very strong. In this way, it is possible to monitor animals, prevent them from being abandoned or lost, and prevent unauthorized trade and reproduction.”

Dodurka also said that some regulations have proved successful, such as imposing serious fines on those who abandon their animals on the streets, those who let their animals wander without a leash, and those who do not take the necessary precautions, as well as the banning of illegal breeding of dogs and the sales of puppies that are not registered with breeding associations, encouragement of sterilization of owned animals (since owned animals are another source of unregistered production), promotion of education of people on animal behavior, encouragement of ownership and organization of sterilization campaigns.

Tugay Abukan, known as 'forest angel', plays with his dogs outside Istanbul, Türkiye, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo)

Emphasizing that sterilization campaigns are an extremely effective solution if implemented correctly, Dodurka said: “Greece was able to reduce the number of dogs on the streets to a very low level by organizing a large sterilization campaign with the participation of freelance veterinarians, with the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO). The name of this practice was mentioned in the literature as the ‘Athens Example.’”

Dodurka further stated that the practice of “neuter, vaccinate, leave it where you got it” is a correct practice that has become an order of Law No. 5199 in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), but that it is not possible to get a successful result when only this practice is carried out. Other requirements of population management are not implemented.

Every debate has at least two sides

As you might have guessed, there are also opponents of this practice, Dodurka said.

“We also have to say that this process has not been done outside a few provinces and districts. We should not be deceived by those who pretend to do this to avoid fines,” he added.

“In order to solve the problem, a strong and scientific population management mechanism with a budget and effective authority, which calculates the population dynamics well and produces different strategic plans for each region, implements the other requirements of population management and is in contact with nongovernmental organizations that know the practice of the job very well as well as scientific institutions, is needed.”

“It is essential to establish and strengthen the veterinary organization within the ministry,” Dodurka also said.

Underlining that such a task cannot be left to the initiative of local governments, Dodurka said that the efforts of some municipalities that provided improvements in their own regions were wasted because the same success could not be achieved in other regions.

Stating that there is no follow-up on duties and that fines are not imposed on those who do not fulfill their duties, Dodurka argued that culling, a cruel method, is not a permanent solution.

“Culling, or rounding up the dogs and completely clearing the streets, only saved the day in our country where so many dogs proliferate in rural areas, did not provide a permanent solution, and resources were wasted. In some of our districts, where streets were previously emptied after massive culling, the streets were filled again within a few years. Complaints about the new dogs that have not socialized with humans have increased even more,” he added.

Rabies cases

Regarding the rabies cases associated with stray animals, Dodurka said: “Thanks to the calm animals on the streets that are accustomed to humans and whose feeding and vaccination follow-ups are carried out by volunteers, dogs that breed uncontrollably in the countryside that are not accustomed to humans, come into contact with wild animals and are unvaccinated are prevented from entering the city in groups.”

When asked whether there is a serious situation related to stray dogs in rabies cases, Dodurka pointed to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca’s remarks.

“Mr. Koca stated that there has been no increase in human rabies cases. Undoubtedly, even if a single citizen dies from rabies, this is very grave and very dramatic. Therefore, it is of great importance to reveal the source of the disease and combat it at its source,” he said.

“Although dogs are the most important agent of human rabies, the fact that the disease is mostly concentrated in rural areas or rural areas of cities reveals the role of wild animals in causing dogs to contract this disease. As a result of the sequence analyses carried out to determine its geographical origins, the connections of the virus with neighboring countries were revealed and it is known that wild animal rabies is at the forefront, especially in our western neighbors,” he added.

“When wild animals such as wolves and foxes approach villages, they first encounter the village dogs. Dogs fighting to keep these animals out of the village can catch the disease and carry it to dogs in cities. In this way, the virus can reach humans. In other words, if dogs do not prevent them, such wild animals could directly attack people. Thus, we could witness more cases of rabies in humans,” Dodurka said, adding: “We cannot get away with placing all the blame on the dogs that live in the city and have been vaccinated.”

“Because dogs are not the main source of natural carriers of rabies. What we need to do is fight the disease at its source,” he said.

“If wild rabies is fought correctly, the chain of transmission of rabies to urban dogs will be broken. Of course, this struggle is not easy due to the vastness of our borders. This is why we often raise the need for a strong veterinary organization. In this respect, it is of great importance to reorganize the existing organization and strengthen the organization by appointing new veterinarians.”

Dodurka once again emphasized that one of the most important sources of dogs living freely in cities in Türkiye is uncontrolled breeding in rural areas, and warned, “If the breeding of these dogs cannot be prevented, all efforts made in the city will be wasted.”

“The process of collecting dogs and confining them to large areas will not serve a solution as it will lead to the streets being completely emptied,” said Dodurka, adding that this practice is harmful both in terms of animal welfare and animal health.

Regarding the polarization on social media, Dodurka said: “Unfortunately, as humans, we have come to a point where we cannot love each other. Even among some of our politicians who are supposed to be an example to society, hateful language prevails. Unfortunately, according to OECD data, we are one of the countries that stand out in the world in terms of unhappiness.”

“Unfortunately, the animals that live with us also suffer from this loveless and intolerant environment,” he added.

“There is no suffering like the one that animals are forced to go through because some people who see animals only as a commodity fail to understand the importance of animals in their relationship with humans,” he underlined.

Noting that not all segments of society have the same attitude toward stray animals, Dodurka underlined that the dynamics of each neighborhood and even each street are different from each other in terms of absorbing the dog population.

“Attack incidents are closely related to the absorption capacity of the street,” said Dodurka, pointing out that residents of liberal districts such as Beşiktaş and Kadıköy in Istanbul are more tolerant of dogs, so dogs live more comfortably there, except for isolated incidents.

Pointing out that animals kept as pets usually do not cause problems for people, Dodurka said: “If this dog is frightened, harmed or hurt by people for various reasons, the image of ‘friendly human’ changes in its mind. In short, the most important factor that determines dog behavior is human behavior and attitudes. In other words, what pushes the dog to be aggressive is actually human behavior itself. Genetic or congenital aggression is very rare.”

A dog that demonstrates “attacking” behavior because of instincts of “fear or hunting or protecting itself or its territory” is not diagnosed as “aggressive,” Dodurka also emphasized.

“Although some dogs can be provoked to attack or engage in aggressive behavior in different ways, there are some criteria to diagnose a dog as ‘aggressive,’ and it is not possible for people who are unaware of this and are not experts to make this diagnosis.”

Dodurka said that frightening a calm dog changes the dog’s perspective and behavior.

“For example, we heard about cases where the father, who saw the child playing nicely with a dog, was terrified and shouted at the child, ‘Run away from there, you will get yourself bitten,’ and for this very reason, the child ran away in fear and was bitten.”

Stating that not everyone in society can be expected to approach dogs in the right way and that those who direct society are responsible for this, Dodurka said: “In the media, photos of wild dogs and exaggerated, sometimes unverified ‘dog attack’ news stories further fuel this fear in society. Dogs are even used to scare mischievous children at some households.”

“At first, a child may feel a strong connection to animals, but when they are scared away, communication breaks down. Subsequently, the child might resort to either throwing objects at the animal or attempting to flee out of fear. It is a well-known fact that those who flee from dogs out of fear are the ones who typically suffer the most harm,” he added.

“Many people who do not have the slightest idea about dogs are unaware of the behavior that pushes dogs to attack.”

“That’s why people are being trained in this regard in many developed countries,” he said.

Source: Daily Sabah