The town of Kalkan sits in a small bay on the Lycean coast of south-west Turkey, surrounded by dramatic, rugged hills and the glistening navy-green of the Mediterranean sea.
Once the only safe harbour between the larger towns of Kaş and Fethiye, Kalkan’s boats are now predominantly for tourist trips to neighbouring bays and islands, although the port is still used as a haven when seas are rough.
Kalkan’s history is evident; preservation and building codes are strict to protect its 19th century listed buildings, many of which retain wooden balconies and traditional red tiled roofs.
Thriving until the 1950’s, Kalkan’s population disappeared along with sea trade with the advent of road improvements. What remained, however, were unwanted dogs.
A common practice since Ottoman times, abandoning dogs avoids the ‘sin’ of killing a dog and Kalkan, with high visitor numbers and 200 thriving restaurants, attracts unwanted dogs from villages and towns in the surrounding area.
As a visitor to Kalkan in high summer, you may be oblivious to gangs of street dogs, who disappear to seek shade. Go in the cool of spring though and you can’t fail to meet them.
It’s estimated that at least 150 street dogs of indeterminate heritage roam the favoured abandoning spot of Kalkan; un-tethered and unhindered by owners, the dogs survive on scraps and water left for them by sympathetic summer residents and restaurants.
No one knows how many stray dogs and cats there are in Turkey but Istanbul alone is estimated to have as many as 150,000 free roaming dogs.
What makes Kalkan different to other tourist towns in Turkey, and Kalkan street dogs luckier than most, is an organization called KAPSA (Kalkan Association for the Protection of Street Animals), founded in 2008.
Kalkan’s canine population live in the town, divided into invisible territories, and they’re allowed to wander at will into shops and restaurants although they are rapidly shoo-ed away from food areas.
Their desire for human contact is endearing; if you stay at the top of the town, you’ll be accompanied down to the harbour more often than not by as many as five street dogs at a time. An entirely different posse will accompany you back again.
They don’t attach in any physical sense; Kalkan dogs don’t expect to be petted or patted (although they enjoy physical contact), but to simply to engage with the wider social human pack.
Don’t imagine a dog version of Gangs of New York – they are predominantly friendly and accepting with some becoming treasured ‘community dogs’, cared for by a number of residents.
Street dogs are characteristically sandy coloured, dark eyed and rangy; a layman’s guess might be a mix of Alsatian and Labrador, with the occasional oddity of large bodied and short-legged Corgi types.
For animals that lead such an independent existence, they are curiously devoid of traffic-sense, lurching out in front of cars, chasing motorbikes or racing across roads with no expectation of being flattened – which sometimes, of course, they are.
To understand the existence of Kalkan’s street dogs, you have to first understand the rural Turkish attitude to animals. Maggi Celik, 49, is originally from Hertfordshire, but now lives and works in Kalkan.
Founding member of KAPSA, she is part of a group of volunteers who care for street animals and educate to improve their living conditions. “Turkish dogs don’t usually live inside; they’re not always considered household pets and sometimes kept more for security.” Although some Turkish people will have dogs as house pets many more will keep a dog outside their house, giving it food and water but allowing it to roam freely.
While there is a low, but not insignificant, incidence of physical cruelty, abandonment is depressingly regular. Maggi says, “Locals feel it is kinder to abandon their animals than to have them put to sleep, and because there is no culture of neutering, the population explodes.
The dogs that are abandoned in Kalkan are the lucky ones; many are just dumped in the surrounding forest. ” In the surrounding hills, huge numbers of feral dogs who have never known human contact exist from scavenging rubbish dumps.
Not all Kalkan residents are so tolerant of street dogs. In 2003 a local businessman took it upon himself to lay down poison. He apparently killed at least 50 dogs. However, a recent plan to poison the street dogs was quietly thwarted by other locals who immediately alerted KAPSA. Turkish animal protection laws are clear and unequivocal. The Animal Protection Bill Law (No 5199, June 24, 2004) states:
‘Domesticated animals have the freedom to live according to the living conditions specific to their species. The lives of ownerless animals should be supported in the same way as those of animals with owners. The necessary measures must be taken in order to protect, supervise and care for animals and shield them from maltreatment.’
Some residents, mainly ex-pats, support culling. Tourists inevitably suggest a dog’s home, but with the incidence of re-homing very low, it’s no solution at all.
“Kalkan isn’t big enough to re-home many dogs and it would encourage yet more abandoned dogs as has happened in larger towns,’ explains Maggi. “A dogs’ home is never the solution to a stray dog problem unless the surrounding population is big enough to re-home the animals.
The number of dogs being dumped in Kalkan would go up enormously because it would be assumed that Kalkan has a solution for canine overpopulation. ”
Currently, Kalkan’s street dogs are relatively well protected. KAPSA runs a winter programme of feeding to ensure that once the swollen summer population disappears, food and water sources don’t completely go with them, treating sick and injured dogs along the way.
The charity has also instigated a neutering programme both in Kalkan and neighbouring village, Akbel, and the arrival of a street animal friendly vet in Kalkan has helped considerably.
Volunteers from Kapsa regularly run catching missions to neuter and vaccinate them to reduce long term numbers. Locals that support their work often know where dogs can be found.
New un-neutered arrivals are often taken to him by visitors or locals, with the (reduced) bill met by KAPSA.
Local resident and KAPSA Chairman, Atilla Atalay, 67, has kept detailed paperwork that reveals 199 dogs (and 530 cats) have been neutered by KAPSA in a 3 year period. The animals are given help to recover and then returned to the location of their collection according to W.H.O. Geneva, Guidelines for Dog Population Management recommendations.
Dogs are given numbered ear tags, while cats have the tip of one ear clipped to signify they are vaccinated and neutered. KAPSA also registers all dogs when they are neutered. A form is filled in with a photo of the dog, its tag number, weight, sex and details of where it came from. At the present time, KAPSA receives no local government funding.
Occasionally, a street dog simply disappears. While feeling the freedom to abandon animals, local residents from neighbouring hillside villages also feel free to help themselves when they need a new dog. Maggi views this as a positive. “We hope they have gone back into hills to work on a farm, but we don’t ever really know where they end up.”
Despite KAPSA successful outreach and education in schools and local areas, along with free neutering days and a leafleting campaign, deeply ingrained attitudes to dogs are hard to change.
While Maggi feels the schoolchildren they reach understand the importance of neutering, older generations can’t turn their back on tradition.
Just before I left Kalkan, a Turkish man proudly showed me his puppy, rescued at two weeks old from a near-by beach. He had bottle fed her every couple of hours for many days until she gained strength. “We won’t have her neutered until she has at least one litter,” he explained. “We don’t want to damage her psyche.”
For KAPSA donation details, please visit KAPSA’s website.
About the author: Jane Cunningham is a dog lover and beauty blogger for the site BritishBeautyBlogger.com Jane actively campaigns against puppy farming and is a supporter of PupAid.