Istanbul is a city more than a little renowned among those in the know as a city of cats. Less well-known is the ancient community of dogs that call Istanbul home. It’s a community that dates back centuries but has seldom received much hospitality from the city’s human residents. Certainly, cultural taboos about cleanliness and proximity to dogs plays as a big reason why, but another more contemporary reason is that caring for a dog has long been challenging in a city like Istanbul, with few green and open areas for dogs to run and exercise. Istanbul’s dogs either run the streets in unruly packs, lay about depressed and abandoned near metro and tourist areas, or are exiled to the forests of Istanbul’s hinterlands. There are few opportunities for mutually satisfying interaction between humans and dogs. For expats of certain cultures, this disconnect from healthy canine contact only adds to the feeling of foreignness felt in this city of extremes.
I myself grew up with dogs, considering them equal members of my family. I never dreamed that I would end living so many years of my life without a close relationship with a dog. College and the irregular schedules that came with it forced me to become accustomed to life without a dog at home, though it did introduce me to the delights of life with cats. After a period of wanderlust and eventual settlement in Istanbul, I had come to accept that my life was meant to be dog-less for the foreseeable future.
Imagine my delight and surprise then to learn that there’s a place on my own university campus where dogs are waiting for humans to come visit them. For years, BU Paws had been a hidden sanctuary for the dogs who call Boğaziçi University home, but now it’s opening itself up and bringing local human and animal communities together. At the end of a beautiful forest path that starts from the heart of Boğaziçi’s historical South Campus live more than 60 dogs of all shapes and sizes. Led by Defne Arsoy and Ahmet Çolak, a small dedicated team provides 24/7 care and medical attention for the resident dogs as well as for others who call the university home. If you walk with Defne anywhere on campus, she’ll greet by name every dog she sees and will tell you their personal background. Thanks to her efforts, each dog is official registered with local authorities as residing at the university, granting them legal recognition as living creatures with rights. Caring for so many dogs is exhausting, complicated by both the complex and dynamic relationships the dogs have with each other and by the difficult states in which some dogs find themselves on campus.
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While the BU Paws team manages to satisfy the dogs’ basic needs, there’s no way they can satisfy the demands for play and human bonding that the dogs crave. As volunteer Terri Rogers explained, this is where volunteers play an increasingly important role. Terri is one of a growing number of devoted, dog-loving expat volunteers who comes once or twice a week to walk, brush, or even just to play with the dogs. Some volunteers have backgrounds in dog training, which is invaluable for helping to prepare dogs for socializing with people, but most volunteers just love animals. BU Paws provides a way for people to have dogs in their lives even if their housing situations would otherwise make that impossible.
Defne and Terri both admit that the volunteer program itself is in a developing state, which means that people interested in volunteering should not expect a rigidly defined experience. Several of the local high schools, such as Robert College, send their students for customized, structured programs, but those who volunteer individually are free to find their niche. It can be as simple as helping to walk the dogs, brushing them, or helping to keep the facility clean. According to Terri, when in doubt, volunteers can just offer to lend a hand in whatever the staff is working on.
Volunteering is not limited to field work with the dogs. Zuhal is another volunteer who also supports BU Paws by managing the organization’s social media presence. It’s an area that is especially important as the organization is beginning to publicize its work, both to attract volunteers and to identify potential organizational partners and sponsors.
Terri is also a member of the Foster Family Program, wherein she sponsors one particular dog, Cino, with a monthly contribution to cover his food and medical costs. As Cino’s sponsor, Terri enjoys a special relationship with him and she is able to visit and walk with him around her own work schedule. Defne hopes that the program will actually provide a service to people who want to have a dog but feel they can’t keep one at home. Certainly, there is a market and it’s a way to appeal to supporters as more than a charity. Still, Defne is fiercely protective of the dogs under her care. She is quick to point out that these dogs are not pets, but are individuals with lives of their own. She has nursed some of these dogs through life-threatening injuries and rehabilitated others from abuse. She is clear she won’t accept anyone to disrespect the dogs no matter the sponsorship. It’s likely a fine-line to tread when people who’ve never grown up with dogs want to sponsor one. For this reason, expats from certain dog-friendly cultures often represent the easiest sponsors to work with.
The goal of the program, which started in 2016, is to match every dog with a sponsor. The BU Paws website maintain a roster of canine profiles, identifying all the dogs residing at the facility and which ones are still in need of sponsors. So far, more than half of the dogs have found their sponsors, but that still leaves many more dogs in need. In fact, the Foster Family Program is critical to helping BU Paws bear the cost of providing food and medical care to so many dogs. As many a first-time pet owner has learned, food and medical costs can add up quickly, particularly with medical expenses typically coming suddenly and unexpectedly. Funding shortfalls are covered by BU Paws team members’ own personal resources, but that kind of personal passion can only sustain the organization for so long. This is one reason why BU Paws does not accept dogs that are brought in by persons no longer wanting to care for dogs they may have purchased or been gifted.
Since taking over responsibility for BU Paws in 2015 and bringing it under the umbrella of Boğaziçi University’s Wildlife Conservation Commission, Defne has striven to establish a sustainable model for animal-friendly community spaces that will inspire similar efforts elsewhere. She says that early results have been encouraging, but there remains pressure to prove the value of the program even to some university stakeholders. It certainly seems as though Defne and her team have their work cut out for them, but from personal observation compassion for animal issues appears to be growing on campus. 2017 is a year of big goals for the organization, but success will depend on tapping into that local compassion and appealing to those of the expat community wanting again to enjoy dogs in their lives.
For more information on getting involved, check out the official page for BU Paws.
All images courtesy of the author.