During the kurban bayram, it is customary for families to sacrifice a sheep or cow, and to give pieces of the animal away to relatives, or else to the poor.
But instead of doing that, we figured: Why not go and visit an animal shelter?
Actually it was my girlfriend Ozge’s idea. She’d been thinking about going for some time. As a child living in a small town in south Turkey, she’d had a dog. Now, in Istanbul, her apartment was too small, and the neighbors likely would complain anyway. Still, she missed the company of dogs.
So her idea was that, since it was bayram and we both had the day off, we could go to the shelter and take the dogs out for walks. It sounded OK to me. I imagined leafy, pleasant strolls with a grateful mutt: doing a good deed, if you will, and having fun doing it.
Anyway, the shelter in Istanbul (one of them anyway) is located in Ateşehir, a fairly new district on the far Asian side of the city. Not 15 years ago, you could have driven out here and found nothing but green, forested hills. But like much of Istanbul, this area has in recent years been devoured by the ever-voracious appetite of urban growth. Nowadays, high-rise flats and office buildings, shopping centers and restaurants fill the horizon, and more are on the way.
A friend of Ozge’s sister happened to be going to the animal shelter that day, and the friend, whose name was Zeynep, obligingly offered us a lift in her car. She picked us up in the morning outside the Kozyatağı metro station.
“Iyi bayramlar,” we said, exchanging bayram greetings. Zeynep spoke good English, which was a relief for me, and she drove us through Ateşehir. On the way to the shelter, we passed a small roadside market that was offering live sheep for sale, with streams of people waiting in a long queue. It would be easy, and understandable, to lament the grisly fate that awaited those poor animals later in the day, but then I thought about Thanksgiving in America, which is similar to the kurban bayram. I thought about all the turkeys we consume, and realized it would be hypocritical to comment or judge.
We arrived at the animal shelter. It was located off a main road, on some empty land that appeared to have some kind of construction going on nearby. The shelter itself consisted of a main office building, and a secure enclosure where all the animals were kept. A cacophony of barks and other assorted animal noises greeted us as we entered the enclosure. It was like a near prison riot – dog style.
We were greeted first by a dog that was missing one rear leg (it was allowed to roam free about the enclosure, along with a few older dogs, who were very docile and well-behaved).
Just at a glance, there appeared to be hundreds of dogs. Some of them were behind metal fences, while others, such as those immediately to the left, were tied to little dog houses. All of them jumped and barked expectantly, seeing us with our leashes in hand, each of them seeming to compete for our attention. “Me first! Me first!” they all seemed to say.
I was given the first dog, a large young male. He was black-colored, and when he stood on his hind legs, was nearly as tall as me. The dog was so excited that it was difficult to get him to stand still while I removed the chain and attached the leash. Finally, after some time, the leash secured, the dog thrust forward, trying to break into a run. He dragged me along with him; I pulled the leash back. The dog, you could tell, hated the leash. He kept jumping up, his jaws snapping, trying to separate my hand from the leash so that he could run free.
At one point, his jaws sunk into my thigh (the fucker!). Fortunately, I had followed Ozge’s advice and kept the leash wrapped around my wrist, so he didn’t escape.
Ozge and Zeynep had fewer problems with their dogs, and taking care to keep the dogs apart, we managed to get outside the gates of the enclosure and set off on the walk. Outside, my dog kept straining at the leash with all its young, feisty power. He was strong as hell, let me tell you. Already, I could sense that I was in for more than I had bargained for. This was to be no mere pleasant, leafy stroll. I wasn’t walking the dog; the dog was walking me!
Or rather, running me, to be precise. I thought I was being very strategic, very animal sound. OK, I thought: he wants to run. Let him run then, tire him out! So, I set off on a sprint, and the big, young black dog easily kept pace, even pulling ahead. We went on a road that went uphill and ended where some construction was taking place. The dog poked around at the top of the hill, sniffing the garbage that had been tossed by workers, chewing on bits of grass, until finally, he found a nice spot, crouched and took a shit.
By then, Ozge and Zeynep had arrived with their dogs. They seemed to have a much easier time, as I said. I was trying to get my dog to circle back and head back down to the shelter. The dog jumped, trying to bite my hand to get me to release the leash.
“Tell James to spank him if he is not behaving,” I heard Zeynep instructing Ozge.
Actually, I would have felt guilty spanking a poor, homeless dog, whose owner had probably abandoned him. Instead, I found myself channeling my father. I thought of how he used to manage our horses. My father, who was able to discipline these stubborn, willful, intelligent, thousand-pound animals with a few sharp, carefully chosen words.
So as that dog leaped again, jaws clicking, I became my dad: “ALRIGHT, THAT’S ENOUGH. DOWN! DOWN” I commanded. Amazingly, the dog immediately got down. It even seemed to apologize, as if he didn’t realize he had transgressed. We walked the rest of the way back to the shelter, and he was as nice as pie.
Having calmed the dog, and taken him back to his spot inside the compound, I went to get the next dog, a Golden Retriever. It was also a young male and just as eager to run. I no sooner had the leash secured than when he also broke into a run, dragging me unwillingly behind. Meanwhile, outside the enclosure, groups of cats and even ducks were assembled, and they watched curiously as the Golden Retriever and I ran past them out onto the road and up the hill again.
By now, I was already tired, and wearily, I thought off all the rest of those dogs back in the compound that were also eagerly awaiting someone to take them out for a walk: This was gonna be “ruff.”
Actually, the next dog, a light mixed breed, turned out to be a very easy going fellow, and we walked together with no problems whatsoever.
All in all, I walked about six dogs in that first hour, and was pretty tired at the end. Mostly, I was exhausted by that first dog, I think. But also, it was tiring having to size up each individual dog: you never knew how they were going to take to you.
I took a rest, and sat on a bench near the front office. Ozge and Zeynep, and several other volunteers, continued to take the dogs out. Between all of the volunteers, Ozge estimated that at least 100 dogs got to go for a walk that day. Many others would have to wait, but fortunately there appeared to be a steady group of volunteers.
Meanwhile, I thought about all the other aspects of running an animal shelter. All of those dogs had to be fed and housed, their enclosures kept clean and sanitary. Perhaps like any job, you can get used to it. As for me, such work would be far too exhausting.
Ozge, meanwhile, was having the time of her life. “I’m not even tired,” she said. “I can feel the adrenaline rushing through me!” (She felt it later though; we were both wiped out later that evening)
“One more dog,” Ozge said, finally. “Last one.”
The last dog was a friendly fellow, with lively ears and a keen face. I’d noticed him earlier, and admired his friendly intelligence. I was glad that we would have a chance to walk him. Ozge took the leash and I just walked alongside.
“If he were my dog, I would call him ‘Zeek,’” I said.
“Zeek?” Ozge asked. “Why ‘Zeek?’”
“For Isaac,” I said. “Sir Isaac Newton.” It was true. That dog, for some reason or another, reminded me of Sir Isaac Newton. He just looked like him, or like I would imagine Newton to look..
“My favorite was the English terrier,” Ozge said. “If it were possible, I would take him home today.”
Finally, around two in the afternoon, we were ready to go. Zeynep also looked tired but happy.
“It’s a full-body exercise!” she said, as we got into the car. For the record, we all smelled like dogs, but didn’t mind. A hot shower would soon take care of that.
“Actually, I come here every Saturday,” Zeynep said. “And I make sure I don’t schedule anything afterwards because I’m always tired.”
Ozge considered going to the animal shelter herself regularly in the future on her day off from the museum.
“It’s too bad they may have to move this shelter,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, as you can see,” she said. “There is all of this development going on here. The developers may see this land and their mouths will begin to water.”
Zeynep dropped us off at the metro station, and we headed home. Along the way, I thought again of the kurban bayram, the day of sacrifice. Well, we hadn’t sacrificed any sheep or cows, nor had we given money to the poor, as many Turks do on that day. But thanks to Ozge and her idea, we had given something after all: We had given companionship, and we had given our time, to a group of lonely animals that desperately needed it.
And on top of everything, I had met Sir Isaac Newton.
James Tressler, whose books include “Conversations in Prague” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1,” is a former Times-Standard reporter. He lives in Istanbul.