The campus of Bogazici University, where I am studying, is remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s situated on the banks of the Bosphorous Strait, above Bebek, a ritzy district of Istanbul, with a sea view that any L.A. real estate agent would kill for. Secondly, the architecture of the 19th century buildings of South Campus — the school’s first campus — is beautiful to look at.
But what will probably catch your attention first is the huge number of cats and dogs on campus. There are all breeds of dogs — labradors, golden retrievers, mutts, German shepherds — and all kinds of cats. They can be found rolling in the glades of grass, chasing cars or, to put it simply and most accurately, just chilling.
What really gets me though, is the Turkish attitude toward the vast numbers of animals on campus, and indeed, across greater Istanbul. The animals are a fact of life for Istanbullus. And, in every neighborhood, they seem to be well taken care of, if not a little lonely (the dogs at least — the cats really don’t seem to care either way). On campus, there is a student club dedicated to providing shelter and food for the animals as well as a veterinarian. In neighborhoods I have walked through, residents put out bottles of water (it is not advisable to drink Istanbul tap water) and food, as well as mattresses, every few houses down. Many Turks own cats and dogs as pets, but it seems that most animals live on the streets.
The cats and, rarely, the dogs, venture into classrooms and libraries. Unlike the street cats of Los Angeles, who are often feral, the cats of Istanbul, on the whole, seem to enjoy being petted and sometimes follow pedestrians in the hopes of receiving attention. I craned my neck back through half my philosophy lecture last week to observe a giant fluffy gray cat on the lap of one of my fellow students as the professor discussed the Vedas of ancient Hinduism. And I was the only one looking — no one in class said anything or found it to be strange.
I asked my Turkish roommate if this kind of interaction with the animals was acceptable during class. She looked confused.
“So it’s okay to just bring in cats to class?” I asked, a little disbelieving.
“Yeah, of course – why not?” was her reply.
I’m not really sure what Turkish students afflicted with feline allergies do. Perhaps they just grin through the pain.
And this laissez-faire attitude stretches not only to the cats and dogs of Istanbul but also to Turkish birds which seem to have a whole different personality. At a coffee shop (okay, it was Starbucks) along the Bosphorous, a large flock of birds was on the verge of taking over our table to get pits of our pastries. They were really quite brave compared to their compatriots in the West.
The human-animal co-habitance here is all the more strange when I compare it to my experiences as a volunteer for Kitty Bungalow — a shelter a few blocks away from USC that does great work in rehoming feral cats on the streets of Los Angeles. At the shelter, new cats would come in as “students” every week, and volunteers were often assigned the task of socializing “hissy kitties” so that with increased human interaction, they could become adoptable. Older cats who were more used to the street lifestyle were spayed and/or neutered and released back to their feral colonies. Most Istanbullus would probably find the idea of such an organization laughable.
Though Istanbul is home to some similar organizations, and animal shelters do exist, on the whole, vast numbers of animals roaming the streets does not seem to be viewed as a problem here. The animals are provided with their necessities, just not necessarily in a human home.
And while I’d rather every animal have a loving home, I guess it’s okay with me, as the animals don’t seem to mind too much. And, as long as I get to chill in the grass and pet them too, of course.