A golden cat leaps over an ancient half-destroyed wall, not an uncommon Byzantine relic among the streets of Istanbul, moving in the sort of eerie and elegant way reserved solely for felines.
She is just one of the many cats possessing the city in Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi dedicated to the scenes and cats of Istanbul. But perhaps more importantly, the film is an ode to the very special, enchanting and a certainly foreign-to-Westerners relationship that Turkish people seem to have with free stray animals.
Unlike many European cities, stray cats and dogs are a beloved part of Turks’ daily lives in the hectic and azure metropolis that is Istanbul. It is common practice to pour a bit of your milk in little bowls outside your doorstep for kittens in springtime, or to pet a street dog if you’re sitting outdoors whilst smoking a cigarette with the other hand. They are not viewed as pets but, as animals to be loved and helped. Independent beings that belong to the city streets, free to roam just as much as you are.
As the film Kedi, which means cat in Turkish, was being internationally acclaimed by everyone from The Guardian to Variety, the mood was very different in Turkey. Whilst a global audience was mooning over the fluffy creatures, and Turks’ ways of serving and adoring them, Turkish newspapers were seeing an increase of news depicting violent acts towards stray animals.
A video of a soldier torturing a kitten went viral on social media — as in many other countries in the world, and perhaps even more so in Turkey, soldiers are seen as people worthy of great respect and are expected to have stellar characteristics. This came as a shock and the video quickly found an echo on the news with Turkish people calling for the animal rights law to change.
In Turkish law, violent acts committed towards an animal is deemed as a “misdemeanour” and not as a crime. Thus, the offenders often get away with paying small fines.
It seemed with each new day, another tiny square on the local newspapers would feature a story of yet another video that caught someone torturing, beating, or even raping an animal. While the two polar opposite representations of how these free animals are treated was taking place in the same country, Torun says the purpose in Kedi was not to portray Turks as all being loving, but rather to showcase the benefits of a relationship that can exist between people and a ‘free’ animal that is not necessarily thought of as a pet.
Globally, viral videos on Youtube and Facebook have also been painting a picture of a quirky tenderness between Turkish people and animals, be it the bearded guy playing the piano for his cat every day or the old farmer who could not bear to kill his goat so the animal, wearing a homemade diaper, now accompanies him everywhere from car rides in the countryside to Sunday shopping sprees at the bazaar.
As heartwarming as these two-minute encounters from the country may be, Turkey has been more accustomed to being on the news radar for strikingly different topics in the past few years — terrorist attacks, protests, and Turkey becoming the country with the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world, on top of an attempted coup d’etat as well.
Torun says they were researching for the documentary film during the summer of 2013, right at the start of the Gezi Park protests – “a wave of demonstrations initially to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park which developed into wider anti-government riots when a group occupying the park was attacked with tear gas and water cannons by police.” Torun and her team returned to film in the late spring of 2014 when the Syrian refugee crisis was starting to show its impact in Istanbul.
“Every day we had to ask ourselves if we were doing the right thing by making a film about cats,” Torun says of the dilemma they were facing, “and every evening we would be convinced that we had to share the genuine love and tenderness, the compassion and sense of responsibility we were witnessing being displayed by the people we would meet.”“While making the film, my faith in humanity was being restored, and I wanted to share that with the world,” she says.
However, a social media movement in Turkey earlier this year was moving in a contrary direction regarding faith in humanity. As more brutal videos were being shared and condemned online, coverage of the subject dominated national news.
Columns, debates on morning shows, and even celebrity statements followed. Turkish people were pressing for the current laws regarding punitive measures to change as a vast majority saw the people condoning these acts of cruelty as a danger to society.
A famous Turkish actress, Berguzar Korel, said that she certainly wants the animal rights law to change in an interview to Hurriyet, one of the most-read newspapers in Turkey which has repeatedly covered the subject in the past few years.
“Someone who does this to an animal today, will one day do the same to a child, to you, to me. But that should not be the only reason to speak up. All the creatures in the world have a right to live just as much as people do, and that is not even up for debate,” said Korel.
Torun, on the other hand, does not think there has been “a boom in the country of cruel behaviour.” While she is certainly concerned with what is happening in Turkey, she believes it is simply documented and shared on social media more.
“There have always been cases of people doing cruel things to cats and dogs,” Torun explains, “which is an indication of that person’s particular mental health not being stable. It is often an indicator of potential cruelty towards other helpless beings whether that might be children, women or elderly.”
Counselling psychologist Dr Daphne Josselin agrees that acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty (also referred to as IATC) have indeed been related to a range of psychological disorders and associated violent behaviours.
“Several well-known serial murderers and serial rapists abused animals as children and/or adolescents, often with a sexual interest,” Dr Josselin told us, adding that research in this area has often been based on fairly small samples so any conclusions must be drawn with caution.
She stresses that it is unclear whether such acts truly are good predictors of later violence towards people, however, views it as noteworthy that young people committing IATC have often grown in an environment marked by parental neglect or abuse, where they may have witnessed brutality, including on animals.
When asked whether such behaviour can be treated and how, Josselin says this would depend on what motivated the acts in the first place, as personality disorders such as psychopathy can be complicated to address.
She suggests that at the very least, preventative action can be recommended, whereby animal welfare is discussed in school settings to try and sensitise children to the need to be kind to animals.
The pivotal role of such an education from a young age is something Turkish lawyer and animal activist Gulsah Gorur agrees on, and she is quick to admit that there is a lack of it in the country.
“The insufficiency of education focusing on respecting the right of animals to live, (which begins in the family and should continue in school) causes the foundation of these increasing cases of violent and sexual acts towards animals,” she says.
However, what Gorur considers as the most significant problem, as many Turkish people do, is the current law. At the moment, the law that regards animal rights in the country is the Animal Protection Law No. 5199. Anyone found guilty of violating of this law is punished with a fine. “Hence a person who conducts violent acts, consciously tortures or rapes an animal will get fined and will not be imprisoned,” explains Gorur.
With the increasing social media use “which now even reaches primary school-aged kids,” Gorur indicates that the videos of these kinds of brutal actions have reached millions, resulting in public indignation in Turkey.
“The crimes against animals being regarded as misdemeanours and the lack of deterrent punishment, thus people who conduct these acts being able to get away with it by paying small fines, cause ignorant, uneducated and malevolent people to continue these acts as well as these barbarities to increase,” Gorur argues.
In Turkey, crimes against animals carry a minimum jail time of four months and sentencing under two years is often converted to fines, therefore crimes against animals are often settled with fines rather than jail time.
There are very few places in the world where humans consider non-humans as living beings, which Torun describes as “mind-boggling.” She feels this is an indication of our inability to see others as subjects in their own right, as opposed to objects in ours.
Cats, and “especially cats in Turkey who are as native to the land as people,” were the best medium through which she felt she could convey these more complicated themes. Considering Torun believes that cats are the one animal we have allowed so intimately in our lives without managing to manipulate them (“the way we have with dogs and horses who have been in our lives longer”) the protagonists of her film are not surprising, and perhaps the best-cast actors for this cause.
“There is ongoing talk among activist groups to help change these laws whether in the US, Europe, or Turkey,” she says of the current situation regarding animal rights, “it is a global effort, and each nation can use another’s example to push laws through.”
“What I knew I could do was to address the underlying notion that we need to see animals as having as much rights to resources, and to the pursuit of life, as we do.”
Featured courtesy of Kedi Film