The City and the Animal: An Interview with Ayten Alkan

Ayten Alkan received a CAF grant in 2017 to continue her academic research into stray animals and the city. When she received the grant, Ayten had recently been forced into exile in the United States after she along with hundreds of other academics signed a declaration of academic freedom that caused her to be fired from the University of Istanbul after pressure was exerted by the Turkish government. It was while she was studying in the U.S. that Ayten took part in the Compassion Arts and Culture & Animals Foundation Festival in 2017. Ayten eventually returned to Turkey to resume teaching. In this piece, Ayten reflects on the continuing removal of stray animals from Turkish streets, what this says about urban space and how animals are viewed, and her efforts to carve out space as an independent scholar. This work is reflected in her new book, Sehir ve Hayvan or The City and the Animal, published in 2020. Ayten was interviewed by Isabel Schmidt, a Columbia University student who was a Navab fellow for CAF in the summer of 2020.

The City and the Animal

An Interview with Ayten Alkan

By Isabel Schmidt

Ayten Alkan is a political and social scientist from Istanbul, Turkey who has spent the last twenty years as an “engaged-scientist” academician. Ayten is committed to merging the theoretical work of academia with urgent, real-time activism, particularly through her involvement in Turkey’s Gezi protest movement. She describes her foray into animal rights studies as her “second heterodoxy”—her first was during her PhD, when she explored gender relations of the city. Now, she revisits the history of urbanization by examining human–nonhuman relations in the city.

Her latest book, The City and the Animal (in Turkish: Şehir ve Hayvan), is an edited collection of essays examining Turkey’s cities through the eyes of animals. The book features an introduction by Ayten, a piece by the president of the Association of Justice to the Animals, and seven articles problematizing animal existence in Istanbul, Ankara, and other Turkish cities, as well as in the Ottoman city of the nineteenth century. About her book, Ayten writes:

In the book, we tried to generate ideas about how we can examine our understanding of the urban by putting animals in the center. We want the essays in The City and the Animal to inspire new publications that place animals on the urban map.

The book is dedicated to animal rights activist and conscientious objector, Burak Özgüner. Burak was slated to write an essay for The City and the Animal, discussing specific policies regarding animals in urban spaces. However, he sadly passed away, at the age of only 35, before the book was completed. In honor of his memory, the revenue generated from The City and the Animal will be donated to the Animal Rights and Ethics Association, which was established by Burak.

During her interview, Ayten shared with me the story of her shift to the study of animal rights. She described to me, in great detail, the catalyst for her recent animal-oriented research and activism. Below is her story (the text has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity):

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It was a hot day in mid-summer of 2015. . . . My then-husband and I decided to have a day out. We wanted to visit the Rumelian Lighthouse and then to find somewhere quiet to sit, either in the forest or near the sea. That day, the city seemed to literally vomit us. We were shouted at in parking lots, at restaurants, and from privatized beaches. We tried, and failed, to find a passageway through the huge, scar-like “third bridge,” which was then under construction. We found ourselves caught amongst heavy-duty vehicles, which seemed to be hurtling towards the Northern Forests badly, as if they came from a dystopia. And on that day, in the newspapers we would read that groups of pigs were jumping into the sea (many of them were found dead, washed up on the shore in various parts of Bosporus).

As we tried to access the shore for a walk, bodyguards from a private beach threatened and frightened us. Finally, we were able to find a modest restaurant to sit at, near the Black Sea and adjacent to Kısırkaya Public Beach, which is not there anymore, because it was demolished and closed to the public just a few weeks ago.

The sun was descending, and from the restaurant, we could see the newly constructed massive Kısırkaya Temporary Animal Shelter. Kısırkaya is one of the villages that was annexed to the metropolitan urban area of İstanbul in 2012. The animal shelter was squashed between the construction site of the third bridge and the third airport, which is one of the central government’s “mega projects.” The change in the status of Kısırkaya (from village status to a neighborhood of the metropolitan urban area) has opened it up for developers. This has meant that the forested area, also located between the third airport and the third bridge, has similarly been opened to the construction sector, which was privileged by the government as the driving force of economy in Turkey. The entire area has quickly undergone a neo-liberal urban transformation and is consequently under huge pressure.

At the beginning of that year (2015), İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and the secondary Municipality of Sarıyer (the specific district), had introduced plans to build Kısırkaya Temporary Animal Shelter as a “vision project.” The complex would be established on a 700,000 sq.-meter tract of land and would contain 20,000 animals.

Concerned NGOs and activists opposed the project from the very beginning, claiming that it would be “the final step for a hidden agenda of eradicating animals from the streets.” Due to its physical similarity to Auschwitz, animal activists have preferred to call the complex the “Kısırkaya concentration camp” or “Kısırkaya death camp.” They believed that many of the animals in the remote complex would die unnoticed, especially since Kısırkaya is on top of a hill on the coast of the Black Sea, which makes it open to cold winds for most of the year.

It is also very inconvenient to get to Kısırkaya, which means that animals would be transported long distances in crowded vehicles to reach the complex and that volunteers would lack proper transportation to get there. From certain points of Istanbul, it takes up to three hours to travel to the complex, making the trip itself life-threatening for animals. Despite the administrative court’s decision to annul the project, due to its contravention of development and construction regulations, in July 2015 the construction of the complex was completed unlawfully. By January 2016, İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s council had approved a regulation that authorized the municipality to sign protocols with sub-municipalities so that all neighborhood animals in any district could be deported to Kısırkaya. Moreover, another project for a second “concentration camp,” this time close to the Anatolian border of İstanbul, was declared.

The sun descending over the almost finished mega complex was not the final scene of that heavy, consuming day. On the way home, I saw them. Some of them were holding their paws on the wire fences dividing the forest from the road; some of them had somehow found their way out of the fences and wandered near the road. All of them were skinny and looked terrified. I returned home with their images in my mind. These animals were just like we were on that day, dreaming of having a tranquil day near the sea or in the forest.

In the following months I would go multiple times to Beykoz forests (on the Anatolian side this time): one of the areas where the animals were being dumped. There were dogs that people felt no longer “deserved” to live in the city. These were not purebred dogs, not dogs that were part of the large pet-products industry, and not dogs that were companion animals. So to speak, these were “unowned” dogs, wandering here and there, and at the edges of İstanbul. Each and every one of them has become “surplus”—excluded by concepts (like cities, homes, lives) that are the “programmed” to be more beautiful, cleaner, and more proper, as one of my colleagues, Sezai Ozan Zeybek says.

The following day, I decided to focus my work on the urban question with regards to non-human animals. Şehir ve Hayvan is one of the outcomes of that decision. But it is also a collective work, which shows that there has been an “animal turn” in Turkish academia, especially among younger scholars.

* * *

Ayten also shared with me details about her current difficulties to be a scholar in Turkey, where academia is highly politicized and under great pressure (The text has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity):

* * *

Until August 2016, I worked at the University of İstanbul, Faculty of Political Science. I taught at Political Science and Public Administration Department of the Faculty, as well as at the Women’s Studies Department of Social Sciences Institute. Before the University of Istanbul, I worked at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Ankara, for thirteen years (1995–2008) and lectured at the same departments there. Besides this, I was active with Women’s Studies Centre group of the University. I contributed to many training programs, pilot projects, and workshops in the areas of local governments, local/urban politics, and gender inequality, and women’s empowerment in various regions of Turkey and abroad. I authored many articles, book chapters, presentations, translations, reports, guidebooks, and book reviews throughout twenty years of my career as an academic.

As I said above, by the end of summer 2015 I started to think about and search for the possible theoretical ways of bridging the gap between the debates of “animal rights” and the “right to the city.” There existed a relatively extensive literature on the effects of urbanization and urban life on the non-human, on changing human–animal relations, on formerly urbanized and recently adapted species, and on changing geographies of animals via time and space. Yet, I hadn’t come across an academic effort to connect the notion of the right to the city with the moral, political, and juridical debate on animal rights. I believed that I had to (a) revisit the history of urbanization, tracking the ever-changing human–nonhuman relations, and (b) reach a comprehension of the city and urban life so as to include other animals.

From the very beginning, I was very enthusiastic at being able to pursue this relatively new research question for me. Unfortunately, my academic studies have been seriously interrupted, following the 11th January 2016, when I and hundreds of my colleagues became subjects to a top/down–initiated campaign of intimidation, including interrogations and prosecutions for signing and collectively declaring a petition for peace (titled “We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime,” referring to the violations of basic human rights on the south-east of Turkey).

This campaign regretfully created a political and professional environment that lacked the most basic scholarly needs: such as academic freedom, freedom of expression, and suitable conditions for maintaining academic work effectively and in peace. Finally, I found myself at a crossroads. I could continue to keep my position at the university, despite various formal and informal punitive actions of the university administration (such as being excluded from MA and PhD juries, and not being allowed to participate in international academic events or opportunities, including my right to a three-month visiting fellowship in France). Or I could resign, despite the potential financial difficulties. I chose the second.

This story explains why I considered myself incredibly lucky, honored, and privileged to have received a research award from the Culture & Animals Foundation in 2017. I felt supported. I felt that people cared.

After two years abroad, I returned to Turkey in June 2019. I sent my resume to ten private universities, and unfortunately received only three responses. Each said that they did not have open positions. The other seven didn’t even reply. Academia in Turkey is highly politicized, and under great political pressure.

However, we scholars who are forced to leave the universities continue our work in whatever way we can. We did not disappear! I am a member of Izmir Solidarity Academy, for instance. Solidarity academies started to be founded in 2016 by academics who were dismissed through statutory decrees. They were mainly “academics for peace.” The aims of these academies are “to relate academic knowledge production to the prioritization of peace, nonviolence, and justice in the socio-political sphere; to continue such knowledge production processes in the non-university spheres; and to maintain their relation with the dare-to knowledge that requires courage in producing and sharing knowledge, prioritizing peace vis-à-vis the authoritarian structures; [and thus] to produce and share knowledge with reference to equality, freedom, and solidarity that are excluded from the university sites.”

In spring 2020, during the lockdowns, I delivered a voluntary online course titled “Gender and Space,” and more than forty students enrolled on the course. That is where I find hope.