Animal Rights Activists in Turkey
By Alper Taparli
It seems Turkey´s generation Z has given up on people and is concentrating on saving the environment and especially animals. Whereas the focus of political activities from the 60s to 80s was mainly concentrated on improving the life quality and equality of the people, today´s young generation seems to have lost all hope to be able to change anything in that area. Critique on the economic or social policies of the Government and the never-ending cases of corruption is often met with the joke: “We will visit you in prison and bring you fresh underwear”. For young people who want to change something for the good of the society they live in, there are not many niches left to be politically active without fearing for their freedom and future. Still, we can´t say that the youth of turkey is scared: Amazingly enough, the Turkish leftist movement is on the rise. The pure fact that the restrictions of the state are met with jokes in countless caricatures and are taken with humor in daily life expressions shows us that these young people have big potential to change the conditions they live in today. But the fear of being put on one of the many blacklists of the government -which really consists of one megalomaniac man and his neoliberal Islamofascist ideas- is rooted deep in the Turkish society. Being on one of these lists has severe consequences like long-term unemployment, detention which can take months or even years until it comes to a trial and during which psychological torture is not uncommon. Having experienced the horrendous results of the military coup in 1980 in which thousands of young socialists were detained, tortured and the leftist movement was hacked into small pieces, today´s Turkish left is much more careful with their activities within the system and therefore mostly ineffective in its fight for better living conditions for the working class. Protests against the lack of safety regulations in the construction business or industry in general e.g. are shut down with brute force. With over 1700 deadly work accidents in 2019 alone, there is nothing more justified than the demand for regulations for work safety but the Government in Turkey uses the new laws against terror which were implemented after the alleged coup d’état in 2016 to silence all voices for change by framing anti-government protests as terrorist activities.
Opposition in Turkey is being made by using political content that can´t be restricted by the Government without angering the majority of the society. Women´s rights are one of the topics the Turkish Government cannot restrict the discussion about. So many women fall victim to rape and murder, (here a counter for killed women in Turkey) that the government is criticized for not being able to protect its female citizens. Although some of the highest-ranking officials shamelessly claim that it is the fault of the victims by pointing out their way of clothing, their behavior in public, and so forth, a vast majority of the people stay by the side of activists who want to see women´s rights properly established in Turkey. Thanks to the secular state structure which is eroding with each passing year the fight for women´s rights is backed by the constitution as well and this is a big help for Turkish activists. The problems women face in Turkey are not only rape and murder. The subordination to men is still a big problem that women in Turkey have to struggle with today and sadly it is also a political discussion that does not always get the support of the majority because of religious and traditional dogmas.
Another area in which the government cannot restrict the discussion about is the environment. It is difficult to say no if your opponent wants to protect the land or the forests and to keep the rivers or the shores clean. The neoliberal agenda the Turkish administration has been following for over 30 years has left its marks on the country and its nature. Environmentalists who were a curiosity in the eyes of the population before are today a force to be taken seriously in the country. The Turkish government is proud of the highways, bridges, and airports that were built in their time. The ruling party AKP is mockingly called the party of construction and contractors. Most of these projects were built in public-private partnership and profit guarantees were given to the private investors. The fact that many government officials, members of the ruling party, or their relatives are partners of these investors, has led to allegations of corruption. Airports are being built in rural cities whose inhabitants mostly can´t even afford the payment for their rents because of unemployment. Taxpayers’ money is being used to compensate the companies that built bridges and highways because the people don´t want to or can´t pay the tolls. Most of these constructions are planned without consulting the experts so many of these projects are environmental disasters. The expansion of cities and the relentless killing of everything that is green was one of the reasons for the Gezi protests in 2013 which began in Istanbul but spread across the country within days. The tough and unjustified crackdown of the police at the time caused fear and horror among the people. Today many young people tend to channel their desire for a better world into helping the environment and thus all living things around them. The endeavor to keep things free of politics and critique against the government is understandable but this also makes insufficient helping hands out of people who are activists at their very core.
All Living Things Deserve Food and Shelter
Helping animals that live on the streets of cities with very few green spaces has become a popular way of expressing the desire for a just and better world. In Islam cats and dogs are seen as impure beings and should not live together with people. Nevertheless, feeding street animals is a tradition in Turkey. Shop owners usually put a cup of water beside the doors of their shops and share their food with the cats and dogs that look at them with hungry eyes. Leftovers were always brought to the animals and mothers rebuked their children who gnawed intently on the bones in their food by saying that cats and dogs would be angry with them. It was an efficient way of coexisting. With industrialization, uncontrolled urban development, and the never-ending economic problems this changed dramatically. Life became more and more hectic and in this stress, nobody thought about the street animals which were the most affected group. Cities that were run by ignorant politicians poisoned thousands of animals on the streets. Even today some city administrations use this method by hiding behind the lack of legislation on the topic.
A new practice called catch & release is much more popular today to avoid public shitstorms. City workers catch street dogs and bring them to an empty field outside the city so they can´t bother the citizens while starving. For many young Turks, these inhumane practices are not acceptable but there is not much they can do about it. In a system that punishes even demonstrations for basic human rights, people are bound to look for other ways to improve the conditions, be it for themselves or others. People who torture and kill animals are often not held accountable under the existing law in Turkey. These people are brought to court – only if there is a public outcry- for damage to property and they get away with a fine. The legislation on this subject is so incomplete that it is basically impossible to speak of a law for the protection of animals. The Turkish Government has been promising a law on the matter for years but has done nothing so that activists in Turkey had to take things into their own hands. A growing group of Turkish activists is trying to feed thousands of animals that live in the cities. Veterinarians take on patients for free and work overtime. The network between the activists is getting bigger and more complex. Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. (which I will criticize in another article) people can come together, exchange information about animals in need, and organize help for them. Besides people who rattle off restaurants and butchers in their free time to collect Leftovers for the animals, there are others who specialize in medical treatment. Twitter users like @asyinemisen who has been helping street animals for over 6 years are doing their best to save sick and injured animals. With a list of veterinarians and people who are willing to donate to the cause, they help hundreds of cats and dogs one by one every day. Some go even further and set up their own animal shelters in their backyard or buy land for this purpose. It is difficult to believe that in a culture that is so benevolent towards animals there can be so much cruelty and indifference too but this is a problem that every culture and country has to fight.
It is important to emphasize that animal rights activists are not just nice people who love their four-legged friends. The way a society treats its animals is a good indication of how the people themselves are treated. If we think of society as a complex mechanism with many individual parts, animal rights is one of them. Thus animal rights activists are ultimately working for all of us.
Independently from the animal activists, the Turkish government has to do something about this problem like they have been promising for the last years. Turkey is a candidate for the European Union and even if it doesn´t seem likely that it will join the Union soon it is possible to put pressure on the Turkish government to implement European standards.