BU Paws: stray dogs in a community refuge

Welcome to the Boğaziçi University Paws Dog Sanctuary, where 66 stray dogs have beaten the odds and now welcome visitors and volunteers with open paws. 

By Monica Liau

You hear them before you make it up the hill. One low bark breaks the idyllic quiet of Boğaziçi University’s backwoods, quickly followed by a rousing, rising chorus. Soon, flop-eared mutts appear in the distance, bounding towards us with mouths open in ridiculous grins. Crowding about our heels, they leap and lick, wagging tails whirring like helicopters. Program Coordinator Arsoy Arsoy and Volunteer Liza Slay wade through the wriggling mass unperturbed, cooing to each by name and sending them off with pat.  

This is the Boğaziçi University Paws Dog Sanctuary (BU Paws), where 66 dogs have found refuge from their sometimes complex relationship with the outside world. Stretching over forested land dotted with an array of simple sheds and penned shelters, BU Paws has become a testing ground to work out how stray animals can become a more interwoven part of the community.  

Finding balance

If you had stumbled across this cheerful refuge two years earlier, you would have been met with a rather different scene. Neglected and starved, these dogs were living in limbo; the result of a district that did not quite know what to do with them. 

There has always been a constant push and pull between Istanbul and the population of canines that roam the streets; between those who care for them and those who think they do not belong in a modern metropolis. There remains the question of how to cull the population, to hold the tenuous alliance in balance, humanely and effectively. 

For some years, Boğaziçi University dogs were tucked away into this little-used section of the campus, overseen by a private NGO. But the program lacked structure and oversight. Finally, in January 2015 they called Arsoy – who had worked with the group a few years previously – desperate for help. Upon arrival, Arsoy was shocked. “It was a strange moment. The dogs were starving, but they wouldn’t eat. They had lost all hope. It was difficult to gain back their trust,” says Arsoy. “We blame ourselves that we didn’t stay before. And we decided we would never leave them again.”

Volunteer Liza Slay with Şeker

Arsoy took time from her full-time job and dedicated six months and much of her own money working with Assistant Coordinator Ahmet Çolak (who also worked with the dogs previously and left an office position to return) to bring order to the dog’s now-broken lives. 

Together, they observed the personalities of each dog, splitting them into groups that could wander free, ones that could be let out of their shelters at certain times (to avoid fights with other dogs) and ones that could only be led on leashes (because they may not return to the sanctuary in the evening). 

They also fed them home-cooked meals made of meat and grains – a practice that continues. The group consumes about 45 kilos of food a day, which boils down to 400 kilos of chicken and 140 kilos of meat bones a week. Purina also donates enough dog food for one meal a week. 

Slowly, Arsoy and Çolak’s efforts began to take fruit. “It was a long process,” says Arsoy. “But the dogs put their trust in us, and we were able to trust ourselves to keep going.”

A growing community

Today, visitors are greeted with a happy crush of canines and no one dwells in the past. The sanctuary is supported by the Boğaziçi University Foundation, one of Turkey’s prestigious philanthropy programs. There are plans to update the facilities and all the dogs at the sanctuary have officially been vaccinated, neutered and tagged as Boğaziçi University dogs, so they cannot be legally removed from campus. This is, in large part, thanks to the support of Boğaziçi University Wildlife Conservation Commission (WCC).  

“Arsoy came to me to show how badly the animals were left and we decided to get involved and take care of the animals in a different way,” says Dr.  Neşe Bilgin, Professor of Microbiology at Boğaziçi University and part of the WCC. The WCC also mediates problems and has a series of outreach programs to educate incoming students about animals on campus. 

Importantly, a small group of volunteers have begun to gather at BUPaws, helping with the work and building program infrastructure for other volunteers to come. “She never thought to ask for help,” says Slay. “It was not until we began showing up and asking for things to do that she realized volunteers like us could help ease the burden.”

There are still little reminders of the past. Maya is given a hearty round of applause for venturing outside her little home with strangers around. A shy doberman mix named Şeker lingers on the edge of the woods, unable to get much closer despite entreaties. “She is still very shy,” sighs Slay. “But it’s step by step here, step by step. Still much work needed.”

Picnics and pooches

In the future, Arsoy wants to make this facility into a place where families can come for picnic lunches and interact with the dogs in whatever capacity they can. BU Paws hopes to use this model for the Istanbul neighborhoods, promoting engagement to help foster better interactions and community involvement. 

“Here, we have volunteers who like to come, which makes the work easier. In a mahalle it is usually one lady who takes care of all the animals,” says Dr. Bilgin. “It then becomes a fight, one person against the rest and that person feels helpless. With this model, we spread the responsibility.” 

“The whole idea of BUPaws is care – to have more people come to the shelter. Our dogs should be socialized and loved. The more people who come to visit, the more socialized they are, the easier everyone’s lives will be,” adds Arsoy.  “Thanks to this program, we began to feel like we were not alone. We should not talk of the old days, we should talk of the future. For the sake of the dogs, we can create a family.” 

For more information or to arrange a visit, go to www.bupaws.com.