Fieldwork blog: animal protection as urban solidarity

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A photo of a Besiktas street cat from my Instagram account

I’ve been thinking about animal rights activism in Istanbul as a form of alternative solidarity being built under polarized political circumstances, and wondering how social media might play into this.

Multiple people I’ve interviewed have brought up how they use social media to share messages and photos about cats and dogs. From the woman who showed me photos of her two beloved house dogs stored on her mobile device, to the proud animal lover who showed me how she had shared a video on Instagram of her cat lapping up the natural aloe vera product that she uses social media to market online for work, to her friend who attests to the habitual circulation of petitions about protecting the rights of street animals on her Facebook feed, to another young woman whose Instagram account shows the many corners of Istanbul’s urban landscapes interspersed with photos of her house cat in different positions at home. This merging of people’s intimate connections to the animals they care for at home with the political meanings of publicly protecting and caring about the city’s stray animals seems to be part of staking a claim to the kind of caring urban sociality they want to be part of. Two of the women told me that they didn’t see a difference between their own pets and the cats and dogs in the streets in terms of how much they care about these animals. And the way pet photos and videos mixed with pictures of public spaces and other images on some people’s social media profiles reflected the same easy crossing between animals in the home and the urban spaces of the city. One woman told me that the only places in the city she can live are neighbourhoods where people all either have pets or take care of the street cats and dogs.

Keeping house pets is part of homemaking practices in many places, especially across the world’s urban, cosmopolitan centers. And, yes, the hyper-ubiquity of cute animals on the internet is something that’s common knowledge among the kinds of users one would generally find in such places. And all this is probably largely the same in Istanbul as many other cities. But there also seems to be something specific about the context of Istanbul when it comes to the meanings of claims to caring about animals, online and offline. For one, the historical relationship that the city has with its street animals is rather unique – these stray cats and dogs are an integral part of so many of its residential neighbourhoods, cafe’s, and parks. But despite this, my animal lover respondents don’t see Istanbul as an animal friendly city in general. Rather, to them, it is a place where the rights of animals have to be fiercely and ongoingly defended through interpersonal interactions in the street with strangers, with neighbours, and with city authorities. In a place where people describe public interactions to me as becoming increasingly politically polarized, where riding the dolmus can routinely mean suddenly finding oneself in the middle of a heated political discussion, caring for street animals is perhaps one of the bases for my respondents and others like them to build alternative solidarities around preserving or producing the kind of everyday life that makes them feel at home in the city.

Most of my respondents mention the narrowing and closing down of spaces where they feel they belong in the city (such as the literal closing and replacement of the bars and cafes where they used to socialized in the Taksim area). I wonder whether particular spaces in the city (apartments, streets, neighbourhoods) in which animals are cared for and belong might offer some reprieve, however temporary, minor and oblique, from the changes my respondents tell me they feel are underway in the city at large. And likewise, I wonder how looking at and sharing photos and videos of animals and the everyday postings that don my respondents’ Facebook pages might be a part of this relatively safe solidarity building practice. One of my respondents described Instagram as being a world into which she escapes – not the real world in which things are heavy and difficult, but a lighter world of imagination and pleasure – one in which she feels at home because she has curated it to be pleasant. Perhaps this is the same role that having animals around to care for fulfils; a mini-escape to a space of belonging. Perhaps social media’s commonly experienced transgressions between private and public in this context come to mean building solidarities that make people feel they belong through the cultivation and sharing of values of compassion and care for animals; where spaces of belonging in the home curated in part with pets, are extend into the public, urban spaces of the city as well as the publics created online through social media.

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