Solidarity with animals in the city

Kedi explores gentrification issues, urban poverty as well as marginalized people in the urban space. | Photo courtesy of Haluk Gurses

What would a truly cosmopolitan city look like? Does the diversity we aspire to extend beyond humans to other species?

Hande Gurses, visiting assistant professor of literature at Simon Fraser University (SFU), will answer these questions and more when she hosts Standing Together: Human-Animal Encounters in Istanbul and Athens, on Feb. 27 at SFU Harbour Centre. During this talk, she will discuss the politics of urban life, as seen in two documentaries that focus on stray animals.

The silent others

I am interested in the figure of the animal in contemporary world literature, and how we can talk about animals in a non-anthropogenic way,” says Gurses, who is currently working on a book about how animals are used in the creation of national identities. “The figure of the animal as the silent other is a very rich concept to explore. It can symbolize the silent other of the nation-state, who is included and who is excluded.”

Hande Gurses, visiting assistant professor at SFU. | Photo courtesy of SFU

The two documentaries, Kedi from Turkey and Dogs of Democracy from Greece, make stray cats and dogs the central characters, each with their own unique name and personality.

Dogs of Democracy is about this one particular dog, Loukanikos, who took part in the protests in Athens after the financial crisis and became a significant figure of the movement,” Gurses says. “How did he choose sides? How did he decide to stick with the protesters but not the police force? I am interested in exploring the solidarity between humans and animals.”

The other documentary Kedi is an even more politicized film, although at first glance it seems merely about cute cats of Istanbul. Through the eyes and experiences of the cats, says Gurses, the film shows gentrification issues, urban poverty as well as marginalized people in the urban space.

The films also touch on issues such as how barriers between different groups can be overcome through communication. “With humans, we just assume it is easier to communicate, but there is usually a mismatch. Communication with animals is proof of that; we are communicating with this entirely different other who we have very little in common with, but we still share deep bonds of love, friendship, and companionship,” Gurses says.

Different urban experiences

In both Greece and Turkey, street animals are much more visible than in Vancouver, where one rarely sees a stray animal anywhere within the urban boundary. According to estimates by the New York Times, there are about 130,000 dogs and 125,000 cats roaming free in Istanbul, living side by side with its 15 million human residents.

However Vancouver does have its share of stray animals but they are dealt with differently, says Maria Soroski, co-founder of VOKRA (Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association), which has been active in rescuing stray cats in British Columbia for over 20 years.

“In our culture we want the pet to be our family member. In other countries they are part of the community for many generations. That is the key difference,” she says.

Because of this cultural difference, continues Soroski, stray animals are not socialized well in Vancouver. They are truly on their own, not members of the community.

Just like in the documentary Kedi, urban change has also contributed to the situation of Vancouver’s stray animals. According to Soroski, the last few years have also seen more cats get left behind when people move homes due to the lack of affordable housing in the city.

“A lot of landlords also do not allow pets. If it were allowed by law like in Ontario, then there would be a lot more people adopting cats,” Soroski says.

Gurses believes the Turkish experience with stray cats is an interesting concept for us to think about when it comes to building urban policies.

“Caring for a stray animal is a different kind of relationship than caring for a pet,” she says. “It is a communal collective way of caring for animals; it is a different way of interacting with urban life; it creates a new community that is not based on ownership but based more on solidarity and camaraderie.”

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