“He who does not love animals does not love humans either.” The sentiment conveyed in a tweet by the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Bahcelievler branch was echoed by Turkish social media accounts spanning the ideological spectrum to mark Oct. 4, World Animal Day. Seyma Dogucu, president of the AKP’s Istanbul women’s branch, posted a photograph of herself caressing a scrawny black kitten with the top trending Twitter hashtag #CanDostlarımızınYanındayız, which translated literally means “We stand by our life friends.”
Sezgin Tanrikulu, a prominent member of the main opposition pro-secular Republican People’s Party, seized the occasion to press for new legislation introducing harsher penalties for cruelty to animals.
The law was last amended in 2004 and “is insufficient,” Tanrikulu told Al-Monitor. “The main problem is that it treats violence against animals as a misdemeanor, which in turn means that offenders get off with a fine instead of jail time,” he explained.
Turkey’s record on animal rights remains spotty. Local municipalities — be they pro-secular, Islamic, Nationalist or Kurdish — periodically cull strays with poisoned meat. Municipal workers in the central Anatolian province of Nevsehir provoked uproar when they were caught on camera in July bagging live canine strays and tossing them into a garbage-crushing truck.
Physical abuse of animals remains widespread, but a swelling army of animal rights activists is pushing back. Growing concern for the welfare of animals is one of the few dynamics binding Turkey’s otherwise deeply polarized society.
Tanrikulu, the proud owner of a German shepherd and a Saint Bernard rescue, said, “Whenever I raise the issue in parliament or some particularly horrific abuse against animals occurs, many AKP members who usually oppose almost everything I do rally round.”
Arzu Korkmaz, who represents the advocacy group HAYTAP, said, “Awareness of animals and their rights has well and truly ballooned in recent years; it’s simply incredible.” Speaking from the western province of Balikesir where she runs her own private shelter for dogs, Korkmaz agreed that ideological and confessional differences “are increasingly trumped by concern for animals’ well-being.”
Islamic scholars remain divided as at whether it’s acceptable to have dogs as pets. Even orthodox preachers say it's OK as long as it’s to herd sheep or perform other utilitarian tasks. Nihat Hatipoglu, a prominent theologian from Diyarbakir, a mainly Kurdish and deeply conservative province in the southeast, said, “Of course you can care for dogs. They are not dirty animals. There is no such thing as a dirty animal.” Speaking before a pious audience, Hatipoglu continued, “Even with pigs, it is only that you can’t consume its meat. There is no animal that is cursed in the Kingdom of God.”
This burgeoning tolerance was on full display during the recent Feast of Sacrifice when Muslims worldwide slaughter animals, usually sheep or goats, to prove their devotion. Wealthier Muslims sometimes opt for bulls. One such creature made the headlines when he broke free from the animal market in the Black Sea town of Rize on the first day of the holiday that was marked in Turkey in July. The bull thrust himself into the water and swam all the way to the neighboring province of Trabzon to escape slaughter, where he collapsed on the beach.
Haluk Levent, a famous Turkish rock star and ardent defender of animal rights, bought the bull’s freedom; hardly anyone uttered a peep. In the old days, his actions might have been read as yet another secularist attempt to undermine Islamic values. The bovine, who now leads a life of leisure at a sanctuary in the western province of Izmir, has been named Ferdinand after the 20th Century Fox movie about a young bull in Spain who breaks free from a training camp for fighting bulls.
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