Dog killings in Turkey's capital show poor lawmaking

The recent killing of dogs in Ankara has once again shed light on Turkey's inefficient animal rights laws, which identify strays as "property" instead of "living beings."

al-monitor A dog drinks water on Lake Eymir in Ankara, Turkey, Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images.

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welfare, turkish society, turkish parliament, law, ankara, animal mistreatment, animal abuse, animal rights

Apr 23, 2019

Two separate incidents of mass dog killings in Ankara over the past week have once again sparked nationwide protests, pressuring the parliament over Turkey’s inadequate stray animal rights laws. Animals rights advocates demand that every animal, with or without an owner, must be viewed as a living being by the law.

On the evening of April 10, the news of mass dog poisoning in Ankara’s Batikent district caused an uproar. A video showing dead dogs lying next to each other quickly circulated on social media, resulting in an immediate citizen reaction and the creation of the hashtag “#BatikentteKatliamVar” (“There’s a massacre in Batikent”).

Appalled citizens assembled on the side of a busy road, where many tried to remove the remaining poisoned baits. While some rushed the dogs to veterinary clinics nearby, others stood guard in the area until the next morning.

Ankara’s recently elected mayor from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Mansur Yavas, announced on the night of the incident that he had appointed investigators and sent health personnel to the scene. On April 13, he announced that he would be taking part in the probe, siding with the stray dogs — news that was well received by the public.

At least 16 stray dogs looked after by neighborhood residents were killed in this incident after they ate poisoned chicken meat. Security footage showed three men carrying what is believed to be a bag of poisoned food, which they reportedly threw from a white van. The suspects were detained hours after the incident, but soon after they were released pending trial, causing further unrest among those upset by the incident.

One of the suspects living in the neighborhood disliked the dogs and paid the other two to poison them, local media reported. The suspects claimed innocence before they were released. One of them left the court hearing with a smile on his face, while the prosecutor's objection to their release was rejected by an Ankara court.

Two days later, 30 dogs, including two pitbulls and a rottweiler, and two cats were found dead in plastic bags on Yildirim Beyazit University’s West Campus in Ankara's Cubuk district. The local media, citing information from the district mayor, reported that some 16 of those strays were puppies, and that they had been dead for 10-15 days.

An investigation was also opened into the tragedy in Cubuk, and the local directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said it would carry out autopsies. Animal rights advocates, including the Animal Rights Confederation, reacted angrily from the scene.

Also in the past week, 10 dogs were poisoned in the central Anatolian Kutahya province, local media reported.

As these animal killings are widely protested on social media, voicing long-standing frustration and a call for immediate change in the law, the expectation is that even if the perpetrators are caught, they would soon be released.

According to lawyer and prominent animal rights activist Yasemin Babayigit, this reaction is based on the reality in Turkey today. “In a country where justice for humans is barely served, people are afraid animals don’t stand a chance. Furthermore, animal rights laws are deficient, inadequate and do not meet concrete needs,” Babayigit told Al-Monitor.

According to Law No. 5199, raping, tormenting or killing a stray animal is not considered a crime, Babayigit explained. Punished with a fine, the perpetrator walks away after raping, tormenting or killing a stray animal anywhere in Turkey, she added.

“Based on Penal Code Article 151, the legal repercussions of injuring, killing or raping an animal that has an owner varies from four months to three years in prison or a fine. The same actions carry a penalty of 773 Turkish liras [$132] when it comes to animals without an owner,” she said. “Distinguishing between animals like this is clearly against the understanding of justice.”

The underlying distinction comes from the law that sees stray animals as “property, and not as living beings,” Babayigit added. By considering these acts as “a misdemeanor,” the Turkish law somehow finds curious authority in taking the life out of the stray animals in its practices.

According to Babayigit, the inadequacy begins with the title of the law: Animal Protection Act. She said it must be changed to Animal Rights Act in order to legally validate animal lives and prevent further incidents. In addition, she noted, it feeds a culture of violence against humans.

In Istanbul alone there were approximately 130,000 stray dogs and 125,000 cats without an owner in 2017, according to official data by the provincial veterinarian services. Take that number across 81 provinces, and we are talking about millions of stray animals across Turkey — many of them born in the streets and many that once had owners and hence different legal rights.

While a need for deterrent measures stands, animal rights activist Banu Aydin told Al-Monitor that part of the problem are those who regard animals as property. Aydin has been helping find homes for hundreds of stray dogs and cats in Istanbul for years.

As long as people buy animals from pet shops and then dump them on the side of a highway, it is impossible to protect the animals from such crimes under these conditions, Aydin said.

Countless dogs and cats are left behind each year in Turkey’s vacation resorts, mostly on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Avsa island in the northwest of the country, for instance, is believed to host over a thousand stray dogs and cats, mainly left to the goodwill of a senior citizen who has dedicated his life to taking care of them with food donations he receives.

“Social media thankfully allows our voices to be heard. Through this we are able to change the public perception — even if only a little,” Aydin said. She added that individual actions can be as effective as those of organizations, when looking after the animals and increasing stray rights awareness.

In addition to changing the law, animal rights advocates are calling on the government to provide more efficient spaying practices and better care of animals in government-run shelters, which are occasional scenes to abuse scandals.

A government-sponsored bill proposing prison term sentences for deliberately killing or torturing strays was finally announced last April, but has yet to be adopted by the parliament. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s vow to take “serious steps” after the June 24, 2018, elections still awaits implementation 10 months on.

According to Aydin, it all starts with the law, and the law must change now to prevent future animal killings. “Unless stray animals are considered living beings instead of property, actions by individuals and organizations are limited,” she said.

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