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Hero canines warm hearts as Turkey's earthquake rescue operations drop off

Some 400 search and rescue dogs are still working to find survivors in Turkey, though such operations are winding down.
A rescue dog searches for victims and survivors, in the regime-controlled town of Jableh in the province of Latakia, northwest of the Syrian capital, on Feb. 12, 2023, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake.

Turks, grappling with grief and loss as the country’s death toll passed 35,000 following last week’s twin earthquakes, joined Mexicans in mourning the death of a search and rescue dog that died while trying to save people trapped under the rubble. 

Hundreds of Turks tweeted, “Thank you, Proteo, we will always remember and honor you.” Many reposted an artistic portrait of the German shepherd drawn by graphic designer Burak Turker bearing the words “Thank you, Proteo.” The O in his name features the Turkish flag, with its star and crescent against a red backdrop. The image also went viral in earthquake-prone Mexico, which relied on canine power during its major earthquake in 2017.

The dog, one of the famous team of 16 rescue dogs Mexico sent to Turkey with soldiers from Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense, died when the building he entered to sniff out survivors beneath the rubble collapsed.

Proteo was in Adiyaman, a city whose residents bitterly complained that they had been “forsaken” because it took rescuers four days to put up tents for the victims. The Mexican rescue workers have found four people alive, carried out 72 medical consultations and aided in the delivery of three tons of food and other provisions, according to Mexican authorities who made a presentation Monday.

Proteo was one of the hundreds of dogs from both Turkey and foreign countries rushed in to help in the wake of a historic quake that devastated 10 provinces and changed the lives of 13.5 million people.

A spokesperson from Turkey’s state-run relief agency AFAD told Al-Monitor Tuesday that some 400 dogs are working the rubble. “There are currently 86 search and rescue dogs from Turkey and 306 dogs from other countries who have arrived to aid the region.” They include Pia and Asko, two sleek brown hounds on the German rescue team in Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the earthquakes. They have helped save more than 10 people buried under the rubble, German rescuer Danelva Felix told Ihlas news agency. Torin, a black-and-white search dog from Kyrgyzstan, helped save two people under the rubble in Kahramanmaras. 

In nearby Malatya, Kopuk — whose name means “foam” in Turkish — was the hero of a 77th-hour rescue when he directed an AFAD team to Meral Nakir, a 60-year-old woman trapped in the ruins of a six-story building. In one week, the pale golden retriever has become a celebrity on social media as he helped more than a dozen people trapped under the rubble, reported AFAD. A recent snapshot showed him with his paws in yellow bandages after he cut them on broken glass during the rescue work.

AFAD officials say that dogs have been an essential part of their rescue operations in earthquakes and other searches. “We choose among the dogs that are eight to 10 weeks old,” said an AFAD member who requested anonymity in line with the institution’s rules. “We run several tests, such as sound sensitivity, distractibility and prey and hunt drive. Then they undertake two pieces of training, basic and advanced. After two years, our dogs can carry out search and rescue operations, locate gas leaks or detect fire. They also develop a strong tie with their handlers and operate as a team.”

The stories of successful canine rescuers, like 200th-hour miracles, provide a glimmer of hope and unity in the region dominated by despair, anger and polarization. On Monday, a teenager was saved in Hatay, which practically become a ghost town after the quake. He had spent 182 hours under the concrete. On Tuesday, a foreign national was saved from under the rubble in Hatay, and work was underway to rescue a family of four. As this article was published, a team was working to save two people from Adiyaman, racing against time. 

But most people in the region are preparing for the inevitable as many of the rescue operations come to an end. Some of the international rescuers from Poland, Slovakia and Spain have already announced that they were leaving or will shortly.

Ambassador Nikolas Landrut-Meyer, the head of the European Union delegation to Turkey, gave a sober update in a press conference in Ankara, “The rescue phase is unfortunately over,” Landrut said, noting that the new focus had to be rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The EU official said that medical assistance and shelters would be the new focus, explaining that the 12 EU states had provided 50,000 winter tents, 100,000 blankets and 50,000 heaters. Some EU countries also set up field hospitals, he added.

Both European Commission President Ursula von den Leyer and European Council head Louis Michel called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late Sunday to say that the EU will organize an international donor conference in March in Brussels to contribute to rehabilitation and reconstruction for the earthquake-affected people. 

Speaking to journalists after Monday’s cabinet meeting, Erdogan announced that the earthquake toll had reached 35,418, praising the Turkish rescue efforts on the grounds. He pledged that reconstruction would start as soon as possible, with 30,000 houses to be built in the earthquake-hit zone. In an effort to deflect criticism of shoddy construction, the president claimed that 98% of the collapsed buildings were built before 1999, meaning before he came to power.

In a video speech to World Government Summit in Dubai, Erdogan extended his thanks to all the countries that have aided Turkey.

Saying that the teams have pulled out more than 8,000 people alive from the quake debris, he described the quake as one of the "greatest natural disasters" in the history of humanity. We will never forget "the friendship you showed on this dark day," he said.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen paid a visit to Ankara, promising to continue support to Turkey, after which he visited the region. Also on Tuesday, President of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani visited Gaziantep, one of Turkey’s hardest-hit provinces, and held press conference in the AFAD office in the city. Barzani said the purpose of his visit was to express his region’s sympathies and condolences to the disaster-stricken people of Turkey.

“The people of the Kurdistan Region mourn the loss and stand in solidarity with the victims of the devastating earthquake,” he said. 

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