Cover pic “Smiley.” Nicole Rayner/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
How can that pic fail to put a smile on anyone’s face?
What would we do without our BFBFFs* in these difficult days. If they bring us out-loud laughter as well as everyday happiness, that’s got to be a bonus. And since this competition rattles vital extra funds into the Blue Cross‘s coffers, it’s bonus plus plus.
*Best Fur Baby Friends Forever
Sorry, no room for hitchhikers
“The Shepherd Family Road Trip.” Alice van Kempen/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
Could life get any better?
“Super Happy Dog.” Dean Pollard/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
My audition for Hamlet went pretty well, I thought
“Overdramatic Cat.” Iain Mcconnell/Mars Petcare Comedy Pet Photo Awards
For those of us who are free, freedom often goes unsung. But for certain mice and rats rescued from a laboratory, that instant of emerging into fresh air and sunshine for the first time ever is a miracle, a moment of true wonder.
And on one such occasion last August, “the perfect day to experience how beautiful this world can be“, Italian vegan and ardent animal-lover Rachele Totaro was there with her camera to capture every emotion.
Maybe like me you believed that ‘only’ those millions of poor animals used in lethal tests die at the hands of workers in labs. Not so. Many millions more used in non-lethal experiments as well as those simply surplus, kept ‘in reserve’ in case they might be needed, are routinely killed. An institution that values these lives only as units for the practice of research is hardly going to care for them once they no longer serve the purpose.
But in Italy at least, the law permits those who do value the lives of these little beings to save them from that fate. And near Milan, a wonderful shelter called La Collina dei Conigli is rescuing all the rats, mice and rabbits they can from laboratories, and searching for them safe, happy forever homes.
Rachele speaks of her gratitude, as the mice and rats were released from their imprisonment and suffering on that particular hot August day, “to have witnessed such a great moment of rebirth!”
So… is this above the famous “sky”?
Who are you?
I’ll protect you…
Enjoying the moment
I love you!
Tell me the story of how you rescued me, again…
So many things to see
“Shy ones, little warriors, curious explorers, cuddle-lovers: every one acted in a different way when taken outdoors, and they showed once again that they are not mere numbers, as they are considered in labs, but individuals with peculiar attitudes and personalities.”
Sharing as they do 97.5% of DNAwith us, why should we be surprised if we find ourselves instinctively reading in their body language and little faces the same emotions we experience ourselves.
And if Rachele’s gentle photos make you cry, know that you are not alone!
To see more of Rachele’s pics of nonhuman persons, click here
In the richness and beauty of its splendid fur the Silver-gray Fox surpasses the beaver or sea otter, and the skins are indeed so highly esteemed that the finest command extraordinary prices, and are always in demand.
— John James Audubon
This is the silver fox, a fox with a recessive gene that dramatically changes its appearance from the animal that is much more familiar to us, the red fox. And in a fashion that for centuries has made its beautiful fur highly-prized.
If you want to know where to join the queue for your very own pet fox, and I hope you don’t, visit Novosibirsk in Russia, where fifty years ago one man started breeding the wild out of the silver fox. What took thousands of years to turn the wild dog into our most loved companion, geneticist Dmitry Belyaev managed for Vulpes vulpes in just five decades. His farm can now boast the fully domesticated fox that loves nothing better than a cuddle and a belly rub. And when I say ‘fox’, I don’t mean one particular individual. I’m talking about a whole breed.
Foxes are harder than most animals to tame. They are said by those who’ve tried to be “highly-wired” and possessing “a stubborn wildness that is impossible to get rid of.”
But there is nothing complex about Belyaev’s method. Or high-tech. We’re not talking about CRISPR or ‘gene drive’ here. He has simply done what Man began all those millennia ago with cats, dogs, sheep, goats and cattle, and has carried on with ever since – selective breeding. He embarked on his mission in the 1950s, visiting fur farms around Russia, picking out foxes that seemed to him the friendliest. Those that hid in corners and made aggressive noises were ruled out.
Back on his farm with his starter foxes – 100 vixens and 30 males – once the vixens gave birth to their first cubs, Belyaev selected the tamest and most docile cubs from each litter, the ones that interacted with people best. It was as simple as that. The chosen 10% were not trained to become tame. They lived in cages and had minimal contact with humans, because the aim was to see how tameness could be bred, not how it could be taught.
Belyaev was trying to discover, for the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, just how our distant ancestors had tamed the animals we now live with at home or on farms. How these evolutionary changes came about. There is some archaeological evidence that humans did attempt to ‘break in’ the fox in the distant past, but cats appear to have replaced them as better candidates for domestication. After Belyaev’s death in 1985, his intern Lyudmila Trut took over.
And so the process continues, litter after litter, generation after generation. By the early 2000s, the foxes were showing none of the fear or aggression of a wild animal. They seemed to have turned into (very pretty) dogs, greeting visitors with a lick and a wagging tail. By 2005-2006 the foxes had become playful, friendly and responsive to people’s gestures or glances. Their vocalisations were now different from those of wild foxes – more like dogs’.
And that wasn’t all. Surprising shifts in the foxes’ physical appearance started to emerge: there were changes in coat colour such as white spotting, legs got shorter, so did snout and tail, the skull widened and the ears got floppier. A fox with floppy ears?! They started to look more tame, more delicate, in a word ‘cute’. Even their natural behaviours changed. Now they’re able to mate out of season, and they produce on average one more cub per litter. They call it ‘domestication syndrome/.
By 2009 Ms Trut discovered a change in brain chemistry compared with the wild Vulpes vulpes population. The people-loving foxes have higher levels of serotonin – the ‘happiness hormone’, which also inhibits aggression. And less active adrenal glands, adrenalin being of course, the ‘flight or fight’ hormone, so vital for an animal in the wild. It makes sense then that foxes bred specifically for their tameness would have less adrenalin pumping round their systems. And less adrenalin means droopier ears!
“The proudest moment for us was creating a unique population of genetically tame foxes, the only one in the world,” said Ms Trut. She makes no mention of the other 90%, rejected from the experiment as still too wild, and killed for their fur.
The experiment continues. “The main current goals are focused on molecular-genetic mechanisms of domestic behaviour”, she says. But maintaining the work is expensive. Despite the sale of pelts, the institute struggles to finance itself. So, in the 1990s it began selling the foxes as house pets. You can have one imported into the USA for $8,900 if you want one. But, as I said, I sincerely hope you don’t.
Does the world need pet foxes? I think not, no more than we need their fur. What price the fox’s legendary cunning, cleverness, boldness, trickery and elusiveness? It appears that what the Russians have done is reduce this magical animal into not much more than a docile furry footwarmer.
Doesn’t the very beauty, allure, mystique of the fox lie in its unbroken wildness? There have to be better ways to make scientific discoveries than this.
But now begins the fantastical epilogue to the taming-of-the-foxes story
When animal behaviourist Dr Ray Coppinger, holidaying on Prince Edward Island, chanced upon the island’s Fox Museum (yes, an actual fox museum), inside he found pictures of friendly-looking foxes with white spotting and other physical traits that it was believed to have taken Belyaev and Trut 60 or more years to produce – pictures from decades before the Russian experiment had even begun. Dr Coppinger shared his new insight with Elinor Karlsson of MIT and Harvard, and other geneticists and domestication scientists, and their combined probings have just placed a bomb right under the whole Russian experiment.
Belyaev obtained his starter pool of foxes from Russian fur farms, but what I didn’t mention earlier in this post because I didn’t know when I wrote it, was that those fur farms were initially supplied with foxes imported from fur farms on Prince Edward Island, Canada. What is the significance of this, we might ask.
It is extremely difficult to get wild foxes to breed in captivity. Back in PEI in the 1890s when the enterprise that was to grow into the silver fox fur equivalent of the Gold Rush all began, the foxes easier to trap and domesticate were of course the less fiercely wild ones. The tamer they were, the better they adapted to confinement, and the more successfully they bred.
We have heard Russian Lyudmila Trut’s boast, “The proudest moment for us was creating a unique population of genetically tame foxes, the only one in the world”. But pictures in the museum dating back at least a century earlier feature Prince Edward Island residents walking foxes on leashes through town, and “dancing the foxtrot” with the live animals draped docilely around their necks.
So, sorry Belyaev & Trut, you did not know any more than we, that you have bred your ‘uniquely’ tame foxes from forebears already possessing that recessive gene that changed both their behaviour and appearance. To put it simply, you bred your pet foxes from forebears already much tamer than the wild, wily red fox we know and love.
Vulpes vulpes the species itself remains fiercely, wildly, proudly UNTAMED.
“Otters are… cute, romantic, loyal and intelligent. They hold hands to ensure they don’t float away from each other, live in close family units, use tools to access food, and pat stones in the air and then roll them around their bodies. These unique behaviors and human-like characteristics have made them hugely popular animals, globally. “
Adam Gekowski, photographer and filmmaker
(And that, sadly is their undoing.)
“Aw, adorable!”, we find ourselves murmuring. It’s an instinctive human response when we encounter other animals – especially the cute furry ones – in photos, videos, nature films, or if we’re really lucky, in the flesh.
Our desire for face to face encounters in particular is all down, it seems, to “our natural affinity for life… the very essence of our humanity [that] binds us to all other living species.” So says the blurb on the book ‘Biophilia’, authored by renowned naturalist E. O. Wilson. He believes we are born with this urge to connect with other life forms. It’s innate, he says, hardwired into our biology. “Our existence depends on [it], our spirit woven from it.” Biophilia– love of what lives.
But nowadays we have a problem giving expression to this instinct. Our increasingly urbanised life offers fewer and fewer chances for animal encounters. Right now 3 million of usare moving to cities every week. By roughly 2040, it’s expected 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities.
Nonetheless, “even in urban environments,the animal connectionis real and strong. We need to live with animals because they offer us so much, not the least of which is someone to love.” – paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman. I think she’s nailed it right there, don’t you?
So, given we have that innate need for animal connection, where can we find ways to satisfy it in the city, especially in the busiest, most crowded city of all with 38 million humans squeezed into it, Tokyo, Japan?
The answer for many lies in caring for a cat or a dog, hopefully rescued ones. That may not be so easy for the residents of Tokyo. Housing here is at a premium – often there is just no room for companion animals, and many landlords forbid them. On top of that, few people would have time to take care of them since Japanese culture dictates notoriously long working hours. (Shockingly, the Japanese have a specific wordfor death attributed to overwork – “karoshi“.)
Now stir the following disparate ingredients into the Tokyo mix:
Japan’s birth rate last year was the lowest in history. Many 20 -30 year olds remain single and/or childless – no-one to love and care for
Otters do look undeniably cute
Social media is hugely influential (Instagram’s Japanese otter celebrity Takechiyo, for instance, has 300,000 followers)
And what does it all add up to?
The latest craze, Tokyo’s otter cafes
Which for a price, offer the promise of half an hour’s cuddle time to city dwellers and visitors in need of their animal ‘fix’.
Several of these places appear on TripAdvisor. In some cafes, visitors are let into a small room containing the otters, and are allowed “to run riot” with them. In others, the otters remain caged and visitors can feed them through small holes.
But however the individual cafes are organised, and however much the visitors enjoy their encounters (and most really do. Only 11% of visitors to one cafe left reviews on TripAdvisor expressing real concern for the animals), one thing is guaranteed:
No good whatever is to be had for the otters themselves. It’s quite tragic that the very love people have for, and want to give the furry creatures, “translates into behaviour that is incredibly harmful to the animal,” says World Animal Protection’s global head of the Wildlife. Not Petscampaign.
“The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water.”
One otter seen by the WAP team was so stressed it had bitten the end of its tail off.
Otters are semiaquatic animals, and Asian otters typically live in streams, rice paddies, and marshes, in large family groups. A far cry from a Tokyo cafe full of excited noisy people.
Even apart from the suffering of a wild animal kept in captivity, otters do not make for good petting, or for good pets, even though well-edited video clips might lead you to think so. When WAP visited Instagram star Takechiyo in his home for example, they saw him looking very cute and placid for a few minutes, picking up small pieces of cat food and popping them into his mouth.
“However, the illusion was quickly shattered as he then went on a tour of destruction around the house; climbing on all the furniture, chewing, shrieking, and even biting and scratching our translator. It was a lightbulb moment – otters may look cute, but they make terrible pets. Otters are best observed at arm’s length and in the wild.”
Orphans stolen from the wild
The otter craze is not confined to Tokyo. It’s sweeping across Southeast Asia. In Thailand for example, there are at least 10 large Facebook groups devoted to keeping pet otters. Otter-mania is hiking sky-high the price on the animal’s head. Just one can fetch several thousand dollars. And where there is money to be made, there is no shortage of people with few scruples wanting a piece of the action. To supply the booming market, farmers, hunters and traffickers are shooting or electrocuting adult otters and stealing their babies. Even law enforcement agencies and government officials are involved, and it’s thought likely there are links to organised crime.
As a result, three out of four otter species found in this part of the world are now at risk of extinction, according to the IUCN.
What can we do?
The good news is, there are a number of positive steps we can all take to help captive otters in Asia, and indeed other wild animals.
It’s all too easy to click on some cute animal video, to comment or follow. Let’s pause for a moment. Is it a wild animal taken from its natural habitat? Then it’s certain to be suffering for our entertainment. World Animal Protection suggests instead of the automatic click, we change the conversation online about keeping wild animals, like otters, as pets. “Every ‘Like‘ ” they say, “leads to a lifetime of cruelty.”
3 Download the Wildlife Witness app
If you’re planning a trip abroad, you can actually play a part in the detection of illegal wildlife trade. You may spot wild animals being sold in a local market for example. “The Wildlife Witness smartphone app allows tourists and locals to easily report wildlife trade by taking a photo, pinning the exact location of an incident and sending these important details to TRAFFIC“ – says their website.
4 Never visit cruel wildlife attractions when you’re on holiday – Take the pledge
9 Watch and share Aaron Gekoski’s film ‘Pet otters: the truth behind the latest wildlife craze’
This is not a case of Westerners pointing the finger eastwards. We have exactly the same problem on our doorstep, only the ‘cute cuddly’ animal in question here is the ring-tailed lemur, taken from tropical Madagascar to the Lake District, northwest England. Armathwaite Hall, a hotel and spa resort near Keswick, offers ‘lemoga’ – outdoor yoga in the company of the primates. Carolyn Graves, owner of the hotel, says: “Lemoga offers our guests the chance to feel at one with nature, at the same time joining in with the lemurs’ playtime.”
Teaming up with adjoining Lake District Wildlife Park (now doesn’t that sound nice – for a zoo), the hotel also offers walks with alpacas and meet-the-meerkat sessions. Manager of the ‘wildlife park’ Richard Robinson, waxes lyrical:
“I don’t think you ever see an unhappy zookeeper. We spend all our time with animals. We know how it makes us feel and if we can give a little piece of that to people then great.” Interestingly, he omits to say how the animals feel about it.
It’s just a crying shame that we so often give expression to our natural desire for animal connection in a way that is a thoughtlessly one-sided affair.
Yoga Studio Set to Exploit Monkeys, Reptiles, and Others – Take Action Now here
Florida attraction selling tickets for sloth yoga – Take Action here
Fukushima – when the people flee en masse from the apocalyptic scene of devastation, the animals are left behind. Then up steps Naoto Matsumura. What he does and what he is as a human being leaves me awestruck and humbled. This is Network for Animals‘story of one heroic, compassionate man who puts his own life on the line to save his fellow creatures from abandonment, starvation and death.
First came the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Then a towering tsunami that raged inland for miles, sweeping to their death more than 15,000 people and countless animals.
But then it got worse, much worse.
In what would become a more catastrophic nuclear meltdown than Chernobyl, three nuclear reactors began to leak radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. People fled. Untold numbers of animals were left behind.
But one man would NOT turn his back…
Naoto Matsumura believed the lives of animals were worth more than his and to this day, every day, he is still there helping some of the most forsaken animals on earth!
We deeply believe Naoto shouldn’t face the fight to keep his friends alive, alone.
As a friend to Network for Animals, you know you can count on us to help animals in the world’s most desolate places. It took us nearly two years to arrange to enter Fukushima’s no-go radioactive zone…
Finally, we visited Naoto and the animals, less than six miles (10 kilometers) from Ground Zero.
Clad in hazmat suits, with the tick-tick-tick-tick of our ever-present Geiger counters as a constant and unnerving background warning, our team listened as Naoto told the saddest story…
When Fukushima melted down the Japanese government immediately declared an a mandatory, and near instantaneous evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. The tsunami-sodden ground was soaked with radiation.
And as Naoto told of how he defied government orders to stay and care for the animals on his family’s small rice farm and as we travelled with him deep into the radioactive restricted zone, we saw the eerie apocalyptic aftermath of the disaster.
Cigarette packs, left on café counters. High-end cars, abandoned by the roadside. Vending machines, still fully stocked. Overnight, thriving communities were frozen in time. They became ghost towns.
Naoto laughs when he tells us that he’s been called the “most radioactive man in Japan.” But he turns sombre as he describes how he soon realized his neighbors’ animals needed help too.
He found one dog near death, just skin and bones, locked inside a barn for 18 months after the disaster! The poor thing had survived on the rotting, dead flesh of the cattle trapped inside.
As Naoto nursed the little dog called Kiseki, “miracle,” back to health, the media spotlight moved on.
He went on making his daily missions of mercy alone, traffic lights signaling to empty streets and overgrown train stations.
Please. Rush your donation to NFA today and you will ensure that Naoto will receive the first of what we hope will be regular shipments of everything from dog and cat food to radioactive-free hay for these forgotten animals, so they can survive and thrive.
If we do nothing, if we leave him to do this work alone, more animals could suffer the fate of nearly 1,000 abandoned cattle, who died in Naoto’s town of Tomioka alone after the disaster.
Please, if you possibly can, be generous today so we can ensure Naoto can continue to come to the aid of the forgotten animals of the Fukushima nuclear fallout zone.
We’ll update you again the moment we get shipment through to Naoto, with your kind support. Thank you for reading and responding with whatever help you can send.
For the animals,
Brian and Gloria Davies (and Max and Flora!)
Founder and CEO
P.S. We want to leave you with one last story about Naoto and Kiseki. After the poor pup had survived locked in a barn for 18 long months eating the rotting flesh of dead cattle, Naoto nurtured him back to health. Thanks to a wonderful friend of animals outside the fallout zone, Kiseki was adopted and has a loving forever family in Tokyo!
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals, reports Diana Darke.
(There is nothing I can possibly add to this amazing story, except to say that if you want to see what true humanity looks like, look no further than Diana’s account below of this exceptional man.)
Just weeks after the video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
Territorio de Zaguates – Land of the Mutts, a sanctuary where every stray is greeted with hearts full of love.
Saved from abuse, abandonment and starvation on the street, given veterinary care, nourishing food, and a multitude of friends to run and play with in freedom and safety, it’s a new life these dogs had never imagined could be theirs.
Awesome Costa Ricans Álvaro and Lya have dedicated their lives to giving these strays the kind of life they deserve. With 1,300 dogs currently in their care, they have a mammoth task.
Take a look at this uplifting little video
In a dark world blackened by the unspeakable acts humans too often perpetrate on other animals, stories such as this shine a light of hope.
For anyone with Netflix, click here for the episode of ‘Dogs’ devoted to Territorio – a riveting and moving closeup view of life at the sanctuary. And the true cost, emotional, physical, mental, as well as financial to those who work there, in particular Álvaro and Lya.
When your holiday zest for sightseeing bazaars and palaces begins to flag, and you turn into the nearest cafe for a much-needed sit down and restorative coffee, chances are several street dogs and cats will have got there before you and nabbed the best seats.
As you settle at a vacant table, a furry feline will in all likelihood settle on you. And in this city no-one is going to turn them out. Because you are in Istanbul, the ‘four-legged city’, where the free-roaming dogs and cats get cared for as well as the pampered pets inside the home.
The cafe owner emerges from the kitchen with dishes of food for his four-legged guests. The fishmonger next door is slicing up pieces of fish for the hopeful, patiently waiting outside.
Local residents are putting out bowls of water and food next to the little shelters they’ve knocked together for the furries out on their own streets. And of course, there are rich pickings to be had for the enterprising in the bags of rubbish thrown on to the street.
Reinvigorated by your coffee? Then head for Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı, otherwise known as ‘the Cat Park’. There are cats, cats and more cats everywhere you look. Hundreds, yes hundreds, of them. Unlike feral cats in the UK, these are completely habituated to people, and will return your attentions with happy purrs and affectionate nuzzles.
You may be puzzled by strange white boxes dotted about the city. These are ‘smart’ recycling boxes. Recycling with an unusual twist: the box rewards you for recycling your empty water bottle by dispensing cat and dog food to give to the animals.
Canines beyond the city limits where food opportunities are thin on the ground are not forgotten either. A van is sent out daily to Belgrade Forest with 1,000 kg of dry dog food. The driver honks the horn, the signal that breakfast has arrived. The dogs come running out of the trees.
That’s hunger dealt with. What about thirst? The city has installed fresh water stations especially for the 130,000 thirsty dogs and 165,000 thirsty cats free-roaming the city – that’s about as many street-dwelling felines and canines combined as there are human residents of Nottingham or Belfast.
If any of these free-spirited furries get sick, no problem – if they can’t get to one of the 6 health clinics (with a little help from the always willing humans), the VetBus will come to them.
There’s no doubt about it: Istanbul’s four-legged residents are done proud. You could say they own the city.
A paradise present and past
What a paradise for these lucky animals, a paradise present and past. Dogs and cats have been documented on the streets of Istanbul for hundreds of years. “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,”Mark Twain wrote after a visit in 1867. “They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by.”
Why is it that in this city they are not just tolerated, but actively cared for? “They are the neighbourhood’s dogs [and cats]. They protect us and everyone loves them,” says resident Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan.
Sadly the same cannot be said of many other cities in the world. In the last few years alone we have heard of cities like Sochi, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro’s horrific mass killings of street animals ahead of big sporting events. Other places like Cyprus and Bali also view the street animals as pests, and regularly cull them. ‘Cull’ of course is just officialese for ‘kill’. But killing it is nonetheless. In 2013, Romania’s capital Bucharest ordered euthanasia (another euphemism) of its 50,000 strays.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures [yet another euphemism to cloak the unpalatable truth] to control their large populations of stray dogs.”
So what makes Istanbul so different, possibly unique?
The answer is, centuries of Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital and seat of power. The Ottomans took to heart the Qu’ran’s teaching that all animals were made by Allah. All animals are loved by Allah. All animals must be treated with kindness and compassion.
“According to Islamic culture, people should avoid being unjust to others, and it places animals’ rights above human rights since it is possible to compensate for the wrongdoing to people by asking for their forgiveness; however, it is not possible with animals as they lack reason.”
(Personally, I think it’s not that they lack reason, but that we don’t understand their language.)
“Prophet Muhammad told the story of two different women who lived long before his time. As he recounted, an evil women went to heaven because she gave water to a dog, while a good woman went to hell because she starved a cat to death.”
(Define ‘good woman’, I’d say. Starving a cat to death sounds pretty evil to me. But anyway, you get the drift.)
“Fearing this story, people in the past fed their animals before they sat down for meals and did not go to bed before they cleaned the animals in their barns and checked if they had water and feed. Moreover, the government punished those who carried barnyard fowls upside down or overloaded horses or donkeys, and people who harmed animals were alienated from their community in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottomans established foundations to feed street dogs, and wolves in the mountains, provide water for birds on hot summer days and treat storks with broken wings or injured horses. They also built birdhouses in the courtyards of buildings such as mosques, madrasahs and palaces and placed water pans on gravestones for birds.”
Even ‘worn out’ donkeys and horses, no longer fit to work, were not shot or abandoned as would have been, and often still is their fate elsewhere, but cared for until the end of their days.
Sad change in the 19th century
The people of Istanbul have always loved having the animals around – and who wouldn’t. The state though is a different matter. In the 19th century, the Ottomans, realising the image they were projecting to European powers was one of backwardness, decided to push beggars, orphans and the unemployed into forced labour or deportation. And at the same time made “systemic efforts to annihilate stray dogs within the wider picture of Ottoman modernizing reforms.”
In 1909, “although old Istanbul’s street dogs were very famous, the municipality collected all of them, ferried them to an island in the Marmara Sea and abandoned them. They were left with no food or clean water, and their cries were heard throughout the city.
“The people who pitied them threw them food, but when all of these dogs died on the island, the residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of their corpses. The wars that broke out and the defeats of the empire following this incident were seen as a punishment for what was done to those animals.”
That sudden ruthless disregard for the centuries-old traditions of care and respect for the street dogs and cats continued right through the 20th century. Right up to the 1990s, officials were strewing poison around the city, consigning the animals to a cruel death.
In 2004 Turkey passed an Animal Protection Law
Everything changed again. The municipalities were forced to take a more humane approach. Instead of slaughter, an extensive neutering program was implemented by the VetBus and the clinics.
With rabies still endemic in Turkey, the thought of rabid animals roaming the busy streets of this ancient city is not one the municipality was prepared to countenance for a second, so the other important part of the program is vaccination. Under the Capture Neuter Vaccinate & Release program, CNVR, the dogs and cats are also chipped and given an ear tag so they can easily be identified as having been ‘done’ before they are returned to the street or square where they were found.
It’s a secret
The tons of food, the water stations, the recycle boxes, the clinics, the VetBus, the CNVR program – surely none of this can come cheap? The municipality refuses to say how much is being spent on the street dogs and cats of Istanbul. “If people knew how much money was spent on these services, maybe people would be more upset, but these figures are not disclosed,” says Yildirim, coordinator of the collective “Dort Ayakli Sehir” (Four-legged City).
But Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli did recently admit that between 2009 and 2018 his ministry expended 31 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) just contributing towards the budgets of local authorities across the country for their care of street animals.
Maybe still not quite such a paradise for the street dogs and cats after all?
The best efforts of the CNVR program has only succeeded in keeping the stray feline and canine populations at a fairly constant level. Their numbers have not fallen over time as the municipality might have hoped and expected. Of course, there will always be some wily characters that escape the net and keep breeding.
But much sadder than that, according to animal welfare organisations on the ground:
“There is a high incidence of dog abandonment in Turkey. Pets are often bought on impulse, and frequently as gifts. But when cute little puppies grow into large dogs that need space, exercise and long-term care, many families simply abandon their pets to the streets or forests. Many abandoned dogs are pure breeds, like golden retrievers, that are temperamentally unfit to survive on the streets or in the wild.”
The self-same fate awaits cats:
“In Turkey everyday, thousands of puppies and kittens are sold in the pet-shops just like stuffed animals and most of them find themselves abandoned on the streets within a couple of months… Abandoned cats and dogs are everywhere. Sometimes people simply kick them out from their home right on the streets, sometimes they take a dog into a forest and leave him there so he can’t find his way back home, or even abandon him by the side of a motorway so he gets killed quickly.”
This little guy is one such victim. Only 40 days old, found all alone and whimpering in a ditch at the side of the road. Luckily he was rescued and put up for adoption. But there’s still a chance he could end up back on the street further down the line.
Love for the street animals/casual, callous abandonment. How to reconcile the two?
Is it that the good people of Istanbul enjoy the pleasure the animals bring into their daily lives, and feel good giving food and some outdoor shelter, but don’t want the full responsibility of caring for them in their own home?
Or could it be that in today’s cosmopolitan city, while some still hold fast to the old traditions, others have discarded them as belonging to the past? That would be sad indeed.
From the centuries-old Ottoman Islamic ethic of respect and compassion, I believe there is much we and the world could learn in our attitudes towards all animals, great and small. Don’t you agree?
Please sign and share:
Petition to stop the poisoning of strays in Turkey’s capital, Ankara
Petition to end this tragedy in Turkey: dog starvation on a colossal scale.
Petition to stop neighbouring Jordan killing every street dog in the country
Petition to stop authorities in Benalmadena, Spain ruthlessly culling homeless cats
Petition to enforce ban on dog culling in Bangladesh
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
And the answer is ……… (Clue: don’t be fooled by the picture above)
🐾🐾DOGS!🐾🐾 But of course you knew that already, didn’t you?
Well, it’s true for women at least. It’s unclear why a college in New York state opted to research women’s sleep in particular, but research it they did. Their study has the serious and meaningful title “An Examination of Adult Women’s Sleep Quality and Sleep Routines in Relation to Pet Ownership and Bedsharing”
“Compared with human bed partners, dogs who slept in the owner’s bed were perceived to disturb sleep less and were associated with stronger feelings of comfort and security.”
Conversely, cats who slept in their owner’s bed were reported to be equally as disruptive as human partners, and were associated with weaker feelings of comfort and security than both human and dog bed partners.”
So it turns out cats are the worst. Do you think cats care? Course not. They know who really rules the roost. Besides, it’s totally beneath them to compete against lesser beings.
And in any case, it seems women who sleep with their canine friends go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Boring…
With Christmas coming up and another new year about to begin, we may think about adding a fur baby to our family. Here are 8 great reasons to adopt a dog (or a cat, depending on how much sleep we want!)
Who wants to support puppy mills or breeders who are just in it for the money?
Rescue buddies come in all shapes, shades, sizes and personalities – there’s a perfect fit out there for the pooch-shaped hole in our lives
Most ‘pre-owned’ mutts are already house-trained – phew!
Our new bff will already have the vet’s seal approval, and be microchipped, vaccinated, often spayed or neutered
Pure gold as he/she is, our rescue canine will cost a lot less than buying from a store or breeder
We will save a life. In the UK 5,000, in the U.S. 670,000 shelter dogs are euthanised each year. Those are not statistics. Those are doggy individuals with hearts full of love and hope
We can never be lonely with that pup by our side
We will reap all the unquestioning love and devotion brimming from those big brown eyes
And now we have a 9th – they are THE best snuggle-monsters! After all, hasn’t science just proved it?
PS The researchers didn’t question me, but it makes no difference to the results. My little rescue dog – who by day would bite the postman’s ankles if he got half a chance – is by night under the covers snuggled up close, his head on my shoulder – bliss!