Turkey's updated animal welfare legislation will help stray animals. Image is three dogs sat together in the center of the road, looking into the camera.
Turkey's updated animal welfare legislation could help protect stray dogs and cats. | Anoir Chafik/Unsplash

Turkey’s New Animal Welfare Law: Animals Are Not Commodities

New animal welfare legislation in Turkey will reclassify strays and pets as living beings rather than commodities, bringing with it harsher penalties for animal cruelty.

Following years of campaigning by animal advocates, NGOs, and political factions such as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for more stringent animal welfare legislation, Turkey has passed a law that defines animals as living beings, not commodities.

Following public pressure, parliament created an Animal Rights Legislative Commission in 2019 that has since met with nonprofits, activists, and other key experts to develop a set of key recommendations for the updated law.

While current legislation punishes animal cruelty with a relatively small fine for damage to a “commodity” (comparable to destruction of property), the update will redefine these crimes to place them on a par with violence towards humans.

Torture, death, and other grievous harm inflicted on non-human animals will lead to a prison sentence of between six months and four years in jail, preventing animal abusers from converting this into a fine or bail once sentenced.

“The good thing is that their crimes will go on the records of offenders,” said Pelin Sayılgan, the Ankara-based representative of Turkey’s animal rights federation, Haytap.

Will Turkey’s New Animal Welfare Legislation Work?

According to the Xinhua News Agency, local police will also be able to establish animal protection squads to respond to incidents of abuse. Additionally, these forces will work to investigate controversial but popular blood sports such as cockfighting and dogfighting.

Animal allies have welcomed comprehensive protection measures, but existing data does show that increased severity of punishment and sentence length—let alone increased police presence and powers—do little to actually discourage re-offenders or reduce crime.

Both prison and police abolitionists are critical of this style of doubling down on enforcement and penalization in place of active prevention. One example of this is how the brutal policing of Kenya’s plastic bag ban has not prevented the production and waste of single-use plastics.

But the proposed law doesn’t stop at policing. It will also punish the intentional abandoning of pets with a fine of up to 2,000 Turkish Liras (approximately U.S. $230), and mandate sterilization and vaccinations.

The legislation could also specifically restrict the sale of cats and dogs. The closure of all pet shops was initially recommended but is not included in the updated legislation. “We had [also] demanded the banning of zoos, circus animals, fur farms, and pet stores, but the new legislation doesn’t include those facts,” added Sayılgan.

Turkish NGO HAYKURDER (the Animal Protection, Rescue and Survival Association) requests that the scope of the bill be expanded to include these and other issues. Particularly to ensure that it protects animals’ rights regardless of breed or species. The new legislation also fails to address the rights and welfare of farmed animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and more.

‘They see them as fellow citizens’

Turkish animals do require additional protection. Strays, in particular, have increasingly been victims of violence from humans. Recent incidents include the killing and consumption of five kittens, as well as the repeated poisoning of the country’s many stray dogs—most notably in the late 1990s and early 2000s—despite public condemnation.

According to 2018 figures, the major Turkish city of Istanbul alone is home to 162,970 street cats and 128,900 dogs, many of whom are favored by the community—none more than the world-famous Tombili—and have inspired social media accounts and multiple documentaries.

The recently released Stray (2021) explores the role that these autonomous dogs play in urban communities, following three individuals throughout their days on the streets of Istanbul. According to the filmmakers, this serves as a unique perspective on human civilization as well as offering insight into the marginalized world of Turkey’s stray dogs.

Many Turkish citizens view street animals as communally-owned pets, rather than traditional strays, and the country has a blanket no-kill, no capture policy. During last year’s coronavirus lockdown, local councils received instructions to feed and otherwise support each region’s homeless animals to make up for the drop in community support while people isolated.

Talking to the Washington Post, Stray director Elizabeth Lo says: “People really see a dignity in the dogs, they see them as fellow citizens, as belonging to their streets and communities.”