A crowdsourced map in Turkey targeting stray dogs leads to public outcry

Image by Heshan Weeramanthri. Free to use under Unsplash License.

Havrita (a combination of Turkish words for bark “hav” and map “harita”) targets stray dogs by offering its users a mapping/location service where they can share a picture of the dog and its location across all 81 provinces in Turkey through a mobile app. Havrita was launched in May 2022, but a spike in the number of poisoned street dogs has brought the website under scrutiny in recent days. Head of the Animal Rights Commission of the Istanbul Bar Association, Gülsaniye Ekmekçi, told Gazete Duvar the most recent example is from Antalya province, where after several pins were added to the app, some 8–10 dogs were found dead around the same locations that were indicated on Havrita. 

#HavritaKapatilsin (Shut down Havrita)

Social media users in Turkey started a hashtag calling to shut down the service and targeted the platform's spokesperson, lawyer by profession Devrim Koçak. In a tweet, Koçak suggested those demanding the platform shut down were misguided. 

You have not even opened the application! Why would you want it shut? Who are you trying to please? HaVrita is not based on a membership service. Find other solutions. HaVrita is a social media application that offers location services, just check the website out, it won’t bite.

In another tweet, Koçak said the app was a “user-friendly social media application” and suggested the app should be protected under Article 56 of the Constitution, which protects people's right to live in a healthy and stable environment — implying that street dogs infringe on that right.

The website for Havrita is full of pictures of stray dogs with locations. Havrita's founders claim it is not for targeting but for identifying locations and that it bears no responsibility for what happens to the dogs once their location is pinned on the map.

But according to a volunteer Güliz Gündüz who works to help stray animals, Havrita's past raises concern. In an interview with the online news platform Bianet, Gündüz explained that the founders of Havrita were involved in another public campaign several years ago, targeting street cats. At the time, the initiative was called Anadolu Kedisi (Anatolian Cat).

“Then they went after dogs, and we, animal rights defenders and organizations, responded seriously. They stopped for a while, until approximately a year ago, the same people founded a website called Başıboş Köpek Sorunu (The problem of stray dog),” said Gündüz in an interview. Thanks to their efforts, people started feeling uneasy when passing stray dogs. “Even though, street animals are afraid [of] us anyway. They face violence and abuse anyway. Instead of punishing the culprits, we are now seeing that the stray dogs are held accountable.”

On August 22, access to the app and its website was blocked after orders from the Ankara Criminal Judgeship of Peace no. 1. The same day Havrita was blocked, its spokesperson, Koçak said they were pausing the application due to the public backlash. On August 21, in an interview with Demirören News Agency, Koçak said there has been a spike in entry numbers, with more than 3,000 entries.

According to the pro-government Sabah newspaper, “the platform is the work of a group of activists who founded it after a high school student was killed after he was mauled by 25 stray dogs in the central province of Kayseri in 2019.”

Koçak, in an interview with BirGun newspaper, said its founder had good intentions when starting the platform. Still, on Twitter, animal rights advocates, including some artists, demanded that the platform be shut down, and its founders and everyone involved should be held accountable.

Not only Havrita should be closed, but everyone who is part of it, must be brought to justice, and rehabilitated. These are not normal people. Anyone who tries to rationalize these psychopaths is potential culprit.

Ekmekçi, from the Animal Rights Commission, said the app does not have “good intentions,” contrary to what Koçak claims. She added that it was created “by people who do not want dogs on the streets, those who want them to be rounded up and killed,” in an interview with Demirören News Agency (DHA).

This is not the first time stray dogs have become an issue in Turkey. In December 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on all city municipalities across the country to round up stray dogs and send them to shelters. The president also demanded that pet owners whom he called “white Turks” — a term used to identify individuals who are secular, Western, and mostly leftist — mind their pets. At the time, the controversy was stirred when a four-year-old girl was attacked by two off-leash pit bulls in Turkey’s Gaziantep province, prompting calls for the owner of the two dogs to be harshly punished. After Erdoğan spoke in Ankara, many municipalities started collecting stray dogs from the streets.

But only a handful of shelters in Turkey provide adequate services to stray dogs. Gazete Duvar reported:

Although Erdoğan deemed shelters’ clean and safe environments,’ this is almost never the case. Pictures and videos frequently shared by animal rights activists reveal the abhorrent conditions animals are forced to live in. In many cases, animals die of hunger and diseases in tiny and filthy cages, while at other times municipality employees kill them as soon as they collect them from the streets.

In an interview with The Independent, Mine Vural, an animal rights activist and veterinary technician in Istanbul, said, “in general in Turkey, shelters are trauma and death camps for animals.” Others, like the lawyer Hacer Gizem Karataş from the Animal Rights Watch Committee (HAKİM), said sending strays to shelters effectively means slaughter.

Turkey adopted its first animal-protection bill in 2004. At the time, it legitimized the catch, neuter, vaccinate, return (CNVR) method. The bill banned the killing of free-range dogs except “in cases specified in Animal Health and Inspection Act 3285.” Euthanasia was forbidden unless dogs suffered from “incurable diseases and conditions such as terminal illness.”

Local municipalities were tasked with caring for street dogs by taking them to community-managed shelters where dogs were neutered, vaccinated, rehabilitated, and implanted with a digital chip on their ears, giving them an identification number for tracking.

In 2012, the ruling Justice and Development Party proposed legislation “to remove stray animals from the streets and place them in sanctuaries outside towns and cities.” The bill was tabled after mass protests. For many, the proposed legal document was reminiscent of 1910 policies when Sultan Mehmed V sent thousands of stray dogs from Istanbul to a nearby island to starve to death in an effort to “westernize” the city just before the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

In 2018, after securing a victory in the presidential election, Erdoğan vowed to bolster animal protection laws. Finally, in 2021, the Turkish parliament approved a new bill on animal rights. The law banned the sale of all cats and dogs at pet shops, classifying them as “living beings” rather than commodities, and made animal abuse punishable by up to four years in prison. Under the new act, pit bull terriers, Tosas, and other dog breeds considered dangerous were banned from being bred and sold. Those found guilty of violating the act would be subject to fines. The act also required pet owners to register their pets with digital IDs. On December 7, 2021, the animal protection bill was amended, requiring owners of breeds classified as “dangerous” to sterilize and register them with authorities before January 14, 2022, reported Daily Sabah.

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