The Hayirsizada Dog Massacre

Nov 24, 2021 0 comments

Istanbul has many fascinating sights, from grand mosques to bustling bazaars, but one thing that has most consistently captured the imagination of foreign travelers to the city has been its street dogs.

“The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,” wrote Mark Twain in 1867. “They would not move, through the Sultan himself passed by.”

Stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul. Photo: Istanbul Research Institute

Alphonse de Lamartine writes in 1833, how the city cares for its canine population:

The Turks themselves live in peace with all the animate and inanimate creation—trees, birds, or dogs; they respect everything that God has made. They extend their humanity to those inferior animals, which are neglected or persecuted among us. In all the streets there are, at certain distances, vessels filled with water for the dogs.

Julia Pardoe mentions of “little straw huts built at intervals along the streets, for the accommodation and comfort of the otherwise homeless dogs that throng every avenue of the town.” She writes:

There they lay, crouched down snugly, too much chilled to welcome us with the chorus of barking that they usually bestow on travelers […]. In addition to this shelter, food is every day dispensed by the inhabitants to the vagrant animals, who having no specific owners are, to use the approved phraseology of genteel alms-asking, ‘wholly dependent on the charitable for support.’

The four centuries of Ottoman rule from the Conquest of Constantinople until the Tanzimat era, the dogs of Istanbul enjoyed a period of peaceful coexistence with humans. Then came a period of modernization, where dogs came to be associated with poverty and unkemptness. In an effort to modernize the city, Sultan Mahmud II ordered all stray dogs to be exiled to various islands in the Marmara Sea. This continued uninterruptedly until the great decaninization of 1910, when the iron-fisted mayor of Istanbul, Suphi Bey, ordered the municipality to round up all the street dogs and exile them to the barren island of Sivriada, where they will surely die of hunger and thirst. The people of İstanbul vehemently opposed this carnage. They rescued as many dogs as they could and hid them away in their homes and barracks.

Stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul. Photo: Istanbul Research Institute

The Director of Istanbul Pasteur Institute, Dr. Remlinger even suggested setting up of extermination camps. He said:

With its skin, hair, bones, fat, muscles, generally albuminous substances, and even intestines, the value of a street dogs ranges between 3 to 4 francs. There are 60,000 to 80,000 dogs in İstanbul, the total value of which amounts to 200 to 300,000 francs. Is it not possible to call for tenders to eliminate the dogs and to establish slaughter homes outside the city for processing the skin, meat, and fat for economic purposes? These slaughter homes can include airtight rooms connected to a gas chamber and a cutting up room for preparing selective manufacturing compartments for skin, fat, bones, and what not, all to be extracted from canine carcasses. The animals can be secretly captured at nighttime and can be transferred there in caged carriages similar to the ones in Europe. If ten slaughterhouses are established, each can process a hundred dogs a day. In two months the decaninization or dog cleansing can be accomplished, the earnings of which can be assigned to the charity works of the city.

The municipality workers captured 80,000 dogs and sent them to Sivriada, never to return. The island was rock solid with no trees, vegetation, water or food. Local accounts describe how the howling of dogs were heard for days and weeks, keeping the city’s residents awake. Not a single dog survived. Some drowned while trying to escape. Some were killed by others for food. But most of them starved.

French novelist Pierre Loti wrote:

The process of the elimination of dogs did not proceed well; people sitting by me in the morning said no Turk wanted to undertake this demeaning task that would bring bad luck to the Ottoman Crescent; vagabonds (gypsies) were recruited for its execution. These men captured the dogs with large iron thongs; they caught their poor victims from their necks, legs, or tails, throwing them on top of one other into the caiques that would take them to Hayirsizada. Screams, cries, heated arguments were heard all across İstanbul for days. The Turks were irate and resisted the operation. Poor dogs! People hid as many as they could in their homes.

After the incident, the mayor proudly proclaimed: “After the declaration of the Constitution, I sent all the dogs from Istanbul to Hayırsızada. However, later I discovered 30,000 more in the city. I gradually destroyed them as well.”

The massacre of the city's stray dogs left a scar on the psyche of Istanbul residents. The people feared that God would wreak havoc on the city in return for their cruelty, and most residents blamed the turbulent times after 1910, including the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the Balkan Wars and World War I, on the dog massacre.

Nearly a century later, animal rights activists of the organization Animal Party put up a stone monument which reads “In memory of the tens of thousands of dogs that were left to die on this island in 1910.”

Bünyamin Salman, a representative of Animal Party, said: “Some people among us perpetrated this cruelty that we didn't want, that we don't like and that we have never accepted. We have decided to erect a monument to express our shame for this violence in our history, to announce that we reject it and to make sure that such a massacre doesn't happen again.”

However, he adds: “Unfortunately, today, some municipalities collect dogs and dump them in forested areas, far away from the city, where they will not be able to find food. We believe this is in no way different from the Sivriada massacre that was committed in the past.”

Today, the island of Sivriada, located about ten miles from Istanbul in the Marmara Sea, is nicknamed Hayırsızada, or “the inauspicious island”.

References:
# The Four-Legged Municipality
# “Animal Party to commemorate four-legged massacre victims”, Todays Zaman
# Ceyda Aslı Kılıçkıran, “The Turkish way of love for animals”, Insight Turkey

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