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Mohandas Gandhi judged a society with the following dictum:

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated."
Mr. Gandhi's words of wisdom flashes across my mind every time I read an article or a column in Hurriyet about animals. As an Istanbul-born Armenian who emigrated to the United States as a child I have been sending money, supplies and medicine to Turkish animal organizations for many years. I had always respected Turkeyǃ¢s remarkable history of being the worldǃ¢s first nation to give autonomy to its diverse religious groups, its role as the bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds, and its devout Muslim yet secular culture. But I began to realize, from the numerous articles in Hurriyet and the information from my Turkish animal shelter operator friends, that Turkey was also unique in its concern about animals, especially when compared to other nations of the Caucus region.

by Garo ALEXANIAN

Many people think that the suffering and torture of street and shelter dogs and cats is simply not important in light of the dangers the world faces. The inevitable comparison is made to children who are also experiencing hunger and homelessness, and the superior value placed on their lives. Despite being cognizant of this valid comparison¨Ü I found myself nonetheless correlating the plight of unwanted and homeless dogs and cats to the same suffering that humans have endured throughout history. People from every nation have also known homelessness and hunger, and yes, even the same persecution that animals are subjected to in our world. Is the hurt, the pain, the suffering, the cruel manner of death any different for a dog than it is for a human? Of course not.¨Ü Thus the only argument that remains for tolerating animal suffering within a society is our self-serving attitude that ǃ¢humans are more important.ǃ¢¨Ü That, however, is an entirely subjective conclusion arrived at by the subject is it not?¨

Most would presume that humans generally do not conform to the Hitlerian view that life is superior for certain privileged biological lines.¨Ü¨Ü Yet, the same person who agrees with the previous statement often contradicts himself by arguing that humans ARE more important than animals. Perhaps humans are, and perhaps not. Only God or Allah knows the answer to that question. Those who subscribe to the values of Mohandas Gandhi , Mother Theresa, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, nuns, social workers, missionaries, and yes, even some politicians and others who believe in serving their own lives for the betterment of others less fortunate are admittedly in the minority. So then why are the lives of animals treated with such disrespect in almost all countries?

As the producer of an award winning television program reaching millions of homes in the United States on the topic of the human-animal interrelationship I decided to do a program comparing the ǃ¢morality,ǃ¢ under Gandhiǃ¢s mantra, of the three traditionally contentious nations of the region, Turkey, Armenia, and Greece. I invited a Turkish animal shelter operator and a Greek animal activist to appear on our program, a one hour live call-in show which has been seen in 14 major American cities.

I began by contacting the embassies of¨Ü all three nations for information and contacts within their country. Since I receive daily issues of both the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet and the Armenian newspaper Marmara, and my father speaks fluent Greek and is able to read the Greek internet journals and listen to Greek radio, I was also able to monitor each nationǃ¢s media. My research into the treatment of animals in these three neighboring countries was quite revealing.

The Turkish embassy was initially extremely helpful, quickly responding to my request, despite knowing that I am an Armenian born in Turkey. Within a few weeks I had answers to my queries. However, some time later, when I needed to do some follow-up all my phone calls were ignored and the individual I had been in contact with never returned my calls. The Armenian embassy was extremely difficult to extract information from. In fact, I was first told by the Press Officer that ǃ¢Armenia has more serious problemsǃ¢ and that he does not have time to get me information about animals in Armenia. Grudgingly, he agreed to let me send him my questions. Months of follow up resulted in no reply. Finally, upon insisting over and over again, and not receiving even a single return phone call, let alone a reply, I was forced to contact the Press Officerǃ¢s superior. This gentleman was much more understanding and agreed to personally get the information for me. He asked me to re-send my questions again as my original submission had been lost, discarded or ignored. A few more weeks went by but I eventually received a sufficient reply. The Greek embassy responded immediately.

At the time there was not a single animal shelter nor an animal protection or advocacy organization in Armenia. Now there are one or two. Far more underdeveloped countries such as Bhutan, Botswana, Malawi, Rwanda, and war-torn nations such as the Congo, Sierra Leone, and even those freed at the same time as Armenia from the former Soviet Union such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan all have animal protection organizations and/or animal shelters. How could Armenia have been one of only a handful of countries in the whole world with not even a single animal shelter or organization?

Turkey, on the other hand, has dozens of animal shelters, both private and public. Many Turkish municipalities operate no-kill animal shelters with public monies. That is not to say that Turkish municipal shelters are humane or that the conditions for the animals are in any way acceptable, but at least some attempt is made to provide sanctuary to those innocent souls. In Turkey the federal government has even issued a regulation that no stray dogs may be killed for population control purposes. Was this the same country who in 1910 had rounded up 5,000 dogs and put them all on the tiny island of Oxia¨Ü to starve to death and kill each other for food until they were all dead? Was this the same country who in the past practiced pet population control by shooting dogs in the streets, poisoning them, and locking them up in trucks to be torn apart by one another?

Turkey stands as an example of progress for the modern world, both for its animal and human citizens. That is not to say that the conditions are ideal. Progress can only come in steps, and Turkey has obviously, over the past few decades, taken enormous strides. But it must still address issues such as puppies often being eaten by the adult dogs in municipal shelter for lack of proper food; water only being available every few days, both in the summer and in the winter; diseased dogs not getting proper treatment; the old getting torn apart by the young; the females continuing to have litters of new puppies.¨Ü I am certain that Turkeyǃ¢s government officials, all of whom adore the sacred name of Turkeyǃ¢s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, would like to also show the same love and compassion that Mr. Ataturk had for his dogs.¨Ü¨Ü

Every other day Hurriyet publishes a headline article about a poor dog which was mistreated or killed by mistake, and yet also many wonderful cases of compassion where an animalǃ¢s life was saved.¨Ü Turkish columnists routinely advocate for animals. Turkey even held its first animal rights rally in June of 2002, with 1500 marchers led by the Mayor of Sisli carrying a lamb in his arms. Since coming to power the ǃ¢so-calledǃ¢ fundamentalist Moslem government issued a decree for the first time ever in Turkeyǃ¢s history that the ritual Moslem animal slaughters were banned except in certain designated locations. These locations were so far away that most city people could not even go.¨Ü

Greece too has animal shelters and groups. However, despite having a very vocal and active animal protection movement, Greece conducted a mass killing campaign of its street dogs. Why now, after ignoring the problem for decades? Because the 2004 Olympics come to Athens and the federal and local governments did not want worldwide visitors to see homeless dogs and cats. Animal protection organizations in Greece are accusing the Greek government of carrying out the poisoning of 50,000 dogs in Athens, being done secretly in the middle of the night as it is against the law to use poison. The Greek Parliament and media are vigorously debating the international demise of Greek reputation as a consequence of all the news reports. Greece, unlike Turkey and Armenia, does have a federal animal protection law, but as is usual in most countries, it is rarely, if ever, enforced. But at least they have a law on the books. Very often, laws are not intended to be enforced. Rather, their true purpose is to make a statement of what a nation stands for.

In that context Greece is ahead of Turkey. But Turkey is very close to passing a federal animal protection law of its own, although some are trying to weaken it to the level of making it irrelevant. Armenia, on the other hand, has no law of any type to protect animals and there is not even any consideration being given to it. Companion animals such as dogs and cats can have their eyes gouged out by a cruel person or child and it is not against the law. In Armenia homeless, lost and abandoned dogs and cats, until recently, were poisoned and shot by the municipality.¨

Upon my approach to the Mayor of¨Ü Yerevan, Armeniaǃ¢s capitol, he terminated the dog killing contract and commissioned a study on how to switch animal population control policies based upon prevention of births. I wrote the 133 page study and the next year, the Mayor issued Armeniaǃ¢s first ever Trap Neuter Spay Release contract instead of continuing the endless shooting. I was amazed. Politics rarely work that way.¨Ü¨

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel opined:
"Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

After all is said and done how would Mohandas Gandhi rate Armenia, Greece, and Turkey? The answer was broadcast on our television program on April 23, 2003. It is with sadness that I informed out programǃ¢s audience that none of these three nations can be considered truly ǃ¢moralǃ¢ according to Gandhiǃ¢s standard. Perhaps no nation on Earth would qualify under this standard. However, it is obvious that, under Gandhiǃ¢s ductum, Turkey and Greece are about equally¨Ü ǃ¢moral,ǃ¢ with Armenia a distant last, with the exception of the capitol city of Yerevan of course.

Although my research and interviews with Turkish and Greek animal groups revealed that politicians usually say the ǃ¢politically correctǃ¢ things about compassion toward societyǃ¢s companion animals, few, if any, actually go out of their way to bring about any progress for manǃ¢s best friends. If Turkey desires to truly enter the 21st Century as a member of the modern world, and enjoy the fruits of its new stature, it must do more to provide for its animals, starting with dogs and cats, and eventually spreading this compassion to its food animals.¨Ü To those who would argue that Turkey, like other nations, must first better provide for its poor because people are more important, I remind them of a proverb befitting Nesrettin Hoca.
" If one is unwilling or unable to save $1 then one will also be unable or unwilling to save $1000."

Garo Alexanian


Note: Above article originally was published in "Marmara" which is an Armenian newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, and mailed internationally. Date of publication: June 24, 2003. This is its first publication in English in the LIGHTMILLENNIUM.ORG.

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