Alexandra HOROWITZ: Elizabeth!
Elizabeth LO: Hi, Alexandra.
HOROWITZ: Are you ready for our outing?
LO: I am. I am. Does the dog that I’m walking have to be on a leash?
The answer is no. In fact, this episode is all about the lives of stray dogs, who are always off-leash.
Speaking of which, welcome to Off Leash. I’m Alexandra Horowitz.
This is the podcast where we explore the relationship between humans and dogs. I’ll invite an interesting person — and their dog — to join me for a walk, and then we’ll see where the walk takes us. Today on the show, we walk into the world of dogs who live among themselves, unowned by people. We’ll hear from a fellow researcher who studies free-ranging dogs in Morocco.
Sarah MARSHALL-PESCINI: My first impression when I saw the photos was like, “Wow, these dogs just — they look amazing. They’re just running on the beach playing, and they- they just seem so happy.”
We’ll share the story of a stray dog who became something of a global celebrity.
FROM WASHINGTON POST: Boji is a regular Istanbul commuter, using the city’s public transport systems to get around, sometimes traveling up to 30 kilometers.
But first, I get to take a walk with the filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, who made a documentary called Stray about the many street dogs in Istanbul.
LO: Right now, I am in Hong Kong, in a very quiet park in the center of the city. And I’m with Charmy, who is an 8-year-old poodle, who is my best friend’s dog. And my best friend is here with me, too, because I don’t think Charmy would walk with me otherwise.
HOROWITZ: Does Charmy know you?
LO: She knows me, but not to the point where she would feel comfortable just following me on a leash. She’s a miniature poodle, but she’s really puffy and she kind of looks like a brown sheep. Like a small brown sheep.
HOROWITZ: A sheep dog. Those are excellent. A little loaf of bread.
LO: Yeah. She is like a little loaf of bread. I took her off the leash because it was easier.
HOROWITZ: So she’s doing her own thing.
LO: Yeah. And I’m just following her around with my friend.
HOROWITZ: I’ll just say we’re in the Upper West Side of Manhattan walking down a somewhat windy sidewalk, as many of them are. And I’m with Quiddity, who is our youngest dog, and I’m sure would be very happy to meet a small sheep-shaped poodle. So what is it like around you right now in Hong Kong?
LO: It’s midnight, there’s nobody on the streets. And this is the time, actually, when wild boars tend to come out.
HOROWITZ: Wild boars?
LO: And you see them.
HOROWITZ: Are the boars — have they been in Hong Kong a long time?
LO: Yeah, they have. They have. Before, I’ve heard that it was stray dogs who lived in the mountains who kept the wild boar population in check. But because, I think in the last decade, the Hong Kong governments decided to cull a lot of the stray dogs who used to prey on the piglets of the wild boars, that now there’s wild boars everywhere in Hong Kong, and you’ll see them, gigantic pigs on quiet roads, they’ll just hop out of gigantic trash cans and be on their way. They seem pretty unafraid of people. They’re very much a part of the character of Hong Kong now.
HOROWITZ: So are there stray dogs in Hong Kong to speak of now?
LO: I would say that Hong Kong has essentially eradicated stray dogs, much like New York and Los Angeles, where there’s only a few cases of stray dogs finding themselves able to roam around and be fed by people. And like, the wild boars, they’re fed by Hong Kong people! Even though the government dissuades people from doing so.
HOROWITZ: So they’re kind of the new stray population.
LO: Yeah, yeah, I think so.
HOROWITZ: So I met you through watching your beautiful film, Stray. It combines a couple of my favorite things: dogs, of course, but also imagining the dog’s point of view, taking the dog’s perspective. You were the, I believe, co-producer, director, and cinematographer?
LO: And editor.
HOROWITZ: And editor. So I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what the lives of dogs in Istanbul on the street are like?
LO: It’s incredible. I am from Hong Kong originally, and I’ve lived in New York and L.A. and San Francisco. And I have never seen anything like what I saw in Istanbul, where there’s 130,000 dogs who live and survive in the city, and they’re protected by laws that prevent the government from euthanizing or killing them. It’s even illegal to hold them in captivity if they’re healthy. And even when the government picks them up to vaccinate them of rabies and neuter and spay them, they have to, by law, return them to the spot where they found the dog. That’s obviously not always put into practice or enforced, but that level of respect for dogs is incredible. And I felt it a lot because the dogs would each have the cafes and the cafe owners and butcher shops that they were familiar with — Oh, I hear a scuffle.
HOROWITZ: That’s just Quiddity gobbling at a little Doodle.
LO: A poodle?
HOROWITZ: It’s a little Doodle mix. You know?
LO: What’s a Doodle?
HOROWITZ: It was almost a poodle, a Doodle, wait, you don’t have Doodles in Hong Kong?
LO: No, what’s a Doodle?
HOROWITZ: A Doodle is a mix of a poodle and some other breed and they’ve become incredibly popular. But, so I want to get back, sorry, to Istanbul. What I wondered as I watched your film was how long it took you to meet the characters who wind up being protagonists in the film, and what their response to you was. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
LO: We actually filmed with, or tried to film with, dozens of dogs before finally casting Zeytin and following her as the spine of the film. Many of the dogs that we came across were just as gorgeous and soulful, but they didn’t have as interesting a life as Zeytin, the protagonist. It felt like those dogs would either stay within a few city blocks’ radius, that that was their territory. And Zeytin was different. Her territory through the city, it felt like she traversed miles every day. And she would go from district to district. And I felt so much that the lives of the dogs in Istanbul — they would take themselves on these hours-and-hours-long walks and adventures through the city, encountering so many different other dogs, that they would join packs with momentarily before they got bored and went their own way as they found food. And they would eat like no pet I have known, eating huge, you know, foot-long sausages, feasting on them if they found them in the trash. It just made me reflect about how much are we not giving our pet dogs? Of course, I think we’re giving them health. Like, they have much more regular veterinary checkups. But their lives in the times that they’re healthy are so much more glorious than any pet. The way that I saw them moving through the world, completely — you know, they could sniff the side of the road for as long as they wanted. And I know you write about that in your book, how you kind of let your dog take you to sniff through the city. Most owners don’t do that.
HOROWITZ: That’s funny, Quiddity is right now dragging me off to sniff some particularly fascinating area by a tree trunk and a bench. But she is on a leash, because we’re in New York City, and it’s a law. And there are a lot of people around who would feel scared or concerned or just morally outraged by giving a dog the kind of freedom which, I kind of agree, she deserves. Oh! She’s pooping. This is another feature of the owned dog’s life, if you’ll excuse me for a second, thanks. Yeah, like royalty, we collect their excreta in little bags.
LO: What was surprising about Istanbul is that I would see Zeytin pooping, and the other dogs pooping. But I never saw poop anywhere that I went in Istanbul. They must have a municipal service that is, you know, being careful about cleaning away the poop. But I also suspect that the dogs of Istanbul are discreet about where they choose to poop.
HOROWITZ: So it’s more of a communication and less of a just have to get it out because I’ve been inside all day. It can be information-leaving.
HOROWITZ: Because we’ve circumscribed all the parts of the dog’s life. They only have this little window. So they’re just going to go right where we are, which is on the sidewalk or on the street.
LO: Yeah, I hadn’t even thought about that.
HOROWITZ: I mean there are plenty of owned dogs there, too? So they have these two relationships with dogs?
LO: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting because there was this park called Maçka Park, that my producer, Zeynip, and I would go to to find dogs and film with them. And there would be gangs of dogs that were in Maçka Park that were stray. And then whenever there was an owner, like a human, walking with a dog at the end of a leash, passing through the park, all the stray dogs would be on high alert. And they would all go sort of charge at this, the pet dog, to greet them and maybe to harass them. And so pet owners there would often have to yell at the stray dogs to ward them off. Not that the stray dogs would, I think, necessarily do bodily harm to their dogs. But it was — it did feel like there was this kind of assertion of a pecking order there, like we’re the tough ones, and you’re a pet.
As a researcher who studies dogs, my inclination is to find out more about the science of these dogs’ lives. There are a few research groups which have begun studying stray — or “free-ranging” — dogs, as they’re also called. And at the center of one of those groups is my next guest.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: My name is Sarah Marshall-Pescini, and I’m a senior researcher at the Konrad Lorenz Institute, of the Veterinary Medicine University of Vienna. And I particularly study wolves and dogs.
HOROWITZ: Now, they’re captive wolves in a way, but they’re a unique population. Can you describe them?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah, so I was lucky enough to start collaborating with Zsófia Virányi and Friederike Range from the Wolf Science Center in Vienna. And this is an absolutely unique, facility, the idea of the Wolf Science Center is to really raise wolves and dogs exactly in the same way to then be able to test them and figure out what changed during domestication.
HOROWITZ: And the dog-wolf research is such interesting comparative work. But I’m also interested how then, with these two stable and elaborate research populations, you decided to add research into free-ranging dogs to the mix.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah. So the Wolf Science Center really was born for this comparison, but of course, it does have its limitation because it is a very peculiar population of dogs and a very peculiar population of wolves. They have a very specific upbringing. So they kind of live with humans from a very early age. And they have this very intense socialization. So I think there was everybody’s real interest in trying to go a step further and kind of opening up to other populations. And I think instrumental in all of this was another colleague, Simona Cafazzo, who had been studying, actually, free-ranging dogs on the outskirts of Rome. And she just told me so much about free-ranging dogs, and she really opened my mind. So I think until then, I, like I think most people in the Western world, had this kind of idea that dogs are pet dogs, and that was my sort of, you know, my blinkers were definitely set in that way. But working with her and, and all our sort of travels back and forth from the Wolf Science Center in the car, she told me quite a lot about the free-ranging population she was working with. And she just got me hooked, actually. I was just like, “Oh, my God, but this is amazing.” You know, this is just something that I hadn’t really thought about, that dogs can actually be dogs without humans.
HOROWITZ: You allude to the fact that if we close our eyes and think of the prototypic dog, most of us, even dog researchers, are thinking of a pet dog. A dog that appears on a leash with an owner. But that’s not the majority of dogs in the world, is it?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: It’s actually the minority. So it’s difficult to have sort of really accurate estimates, but the few estimates that have come out is that at least 70 to 80 percent of the world dog population actually is not pet dogs, but lives rather in a, kind of a much more fluid environment, I would say. They live alongside humans but are not owned and controlled by humans to the extent that our Western-style pet dogs are.
HOROWITZ: In the States, we’d call any dog, I guess, who’s not always controlled by a person, a stray dog. Is that vernacular used at all?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: It’s a very fluid kind of terminology, free-ranging dogs. It covers a big range of different type of dog populations from your village dogs that sort of might live inside the village that are not scared of humans, that typically would scavenge on whatever they find around the village. But then it also goes to dogs that might live in more forested areas further away from the village, and actually be quite scared of humans and come down only at night to eat from rubbish dumps. So we have quite a few of these populations in Italy, although they’re very difficult to find because they are so shy. And then you might actually also have what are considered free-roaming dogs that are owned by an individual, but they’re just allowed to have their kind of freedom as well. And this is something else that we see a lot of in southern Italy where you might actually have, you know, three or four dogs owned by one person who sort of, you know, lets them go around the village during the day. And then at night they sort of go back to the garden and get fed by a human. So it’s almost different levels of control and dependence on people. So it’s interesting. I think there is no sort of set terminology. The reason I don’t use stray dogs is because it brings to mind, to people, dogs that are abandoned by humans. Dogs that somehow were pet dogs and then were just chucked out or things like this. But actually, free-ranging populations are not necessarily abandoned dogs, and in a lot of countries, there is a history of having these dogs just around. And there’s some really interesting genetic studies, actually. And what they find is that if you sort of test for the genetics of free-ranging dogs, there is a much larger variability in these populations compared to sort of breed dogs, because of course there hasn’t been this intense selection for specific traits.
HOROWITZ: It sounds like you’re saying that these free-ranging dogs are, in some way, a better example of an early dog. Sort of the prehistoric dog. If we’re trying to get to, you know, what the story of domestication of dogs was like, rather than the purebreds or mixes of breeds that we typically study in dog cognition.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: I do think that they do in a certain sense represent more of what it could have been than breed dogs or pet dogs. I find it difficult to imagine our life with a dog controlled the whole time. So yeah, I think that they can definitely give us quite a lot of insights on how dogs evolved in that respect.
While Sarah is from Italy, and conducts research primarily in Vienna, the population that she and her colleagues study lives in Morocco.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: I had a lot of contacts from Italian dog trainers, and I saw these amazing photographs of these free-ranging dogs just running on a beach. And I thought, “Wow, what — what is this place? Where is this place?” So I just contacted them, and they said, “Oh, it’s, you know, we often go down to Morocco, and there’s this, small village with lots of free-ranging dogs, and the photos come from there.” And I was like, ” Okay. I need to know more.” So we started going there in 2016 and we were like, “Oh, God, this is just the perfect place.” Because it turns out that these dogs are in a village that’s an ex-fishing village, but it has become a bit of, um a surfer paradise. And so Western tourists are there during the winter, and then Moroccan tourists come during the summer. And typically, culturally, Moroccans are not very favorable towards dogs. But because of this or at least what we think is that because of this influx of Western tourism, they have been tolerated in this village. And so these dogs are pretty social towards people. And actually now they’ve really become part of the texture of the community. So having said that, I mean, yeah. Morocco has a sort of a, management policy where sometimes they just cull all the animals. But interestingly, quite a lot of villages just hid their favorite dogs from the people that were conducting the culling. So it seems that there is a sort of a bond with this population. I have to say, I’m really curious now because we haven’t been there for two years. the tourism, obviously, has gone down in the last two years. Also the towns have changed a lot, and there’s been a lot of building going on of new hotels. And I’m very curious to see how the dogs will adapt to that as well.
HOROWITZ: And what do they look like? You know, I think of a typical, if one could say — and maybe I’m now hesitant to say — free-ranging dog being a kind of medium-sized tan dog. And so I’m curious about what the Moroccan dogs look like.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Spot on. Middle-sized, tan is correct. Well, though we do have quite a lot of variation in coat color, so there’s quite a lot of white darker spots as well. So there’s quite some sort of variability there, also, given it’s quite a warm country, that — that they have quite short hair.
HOROWITZ: Can you describe to me the size of the population?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: So there’s basically three villages, one after the other. And I would say it’s probably about a 15-kilometer sort of stretch where these villages are. And what’s really interesting is that the number of dogs has been consistently stable, around 150 to 200 dogs if we consider the third village, which we’re just beginning to sort of explore a bit more now. The dogs are not necessarily completely the same year by year. So I think I would say that about 40 percent of the dogs we have found one year after the other. So it’s not a super stable community. But what seems to be very stable is the number. So it’s almost like there is a carrying capacity. So those three villages, the rubbish that they generate and the restaurants that generate also rubbish, can sustain that number of dogs. And there isn’t a very good sewer system yet in these villages either. And even after the culling event, after about six months, the number went back up to the same number as before. So, which actually goes to show that culling just doesn’t work because, you know, six months later they had exactly the same number of dogs.
HOROWITZ: And you mentioned the sewers and garbage, because, well, describe to us why you mentioned the sewers and the garbage as being relevant to these populations.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah, because they depend on it. So they live off leftover food that people put out. They live off scraps from the restaurants. They live off the rubbish dumps and the sewers. So yeah, for all the pet dog owners that are always sort of worrying that their dogs eat feces, well, yeah, guys. I mean, yeah. That’s probably what they did from the dawn of time, and it’s actually potentially one of the reasons we keep them around. So feces. Yeah the Moroccan dogs get very excited when they see a diaper. So yeah.
HOROWITZ: We are really just creating dog food for them in all possible ways.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Absolutely. We are just kind of, you know, dog vending machines. They just press our buttons and well, there you go.
After the break, we’ll hear more from Sarah Marshall-Pescini about her research studying these dogs — and we’ll follow the tale of a free-ranging dog in Istanbul who became the toast of the city in 2021.
FROM CNN: A street dog named Boji has become something of a celebrity in Istanbul, where he travels around the city on its ferries, trams and subway cars.
* * *
Welcome back to Off Leash, I’m Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve been talking to my colleague Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who studies free-ranging dogs in Morocco. She found out quickly that running behavioral experiments with this population of dogs was quite different than with the dogs and even the captive wolves she studies in Vienna.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: It was a huge challenge because you have in your head how you can do things with pet dogs and with Wolf Science Center dogs who are super sort of familiar with humans, but then you go down to Morocco and you think, “Hm, let’s look — you know, what are we going to do with these dogs? Are we going to be able to do anything at all?”
HOROWITZ: You mean because basically with the pet dogs, they come into our labs, and they’re cooperative with the tasks that we present to them. And with the dogs and, and wolves at the Wolf Science Center, they’re acclimated to the fact that there are lots of little studies that happen occasionally. These unusual situations that we set up with them.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah, exactly. And all these animals are used to having strangers around, and used to, I don’t know, very banal things. Wearing a collar and a leash. And if you want to do a little sort of study, one person can hold the dog by the collar on the leash, and the other person can show him an object or can do a pointing task and, or do funny gestures that the dog — to understand if the dog understands them or not. And it seems very easy because we start from the idea that, well, you can hold a dog still and by putting a collar and a leash and an owner behind them. But we’re the free-ranging dogs. It’s more like, “Oh, look, there’s a dog. Oh, it’s gone.” So you’re like, hmm.
HOROWITZ: End of experiment.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah, exactly. End of experiment. Didn’t even start. So it was all a huge learning curve. We used Martina’s car as our kind of testing lab, if you want.
Martina Lazzaroni is a Ph.D student working with Sarah who headed up the project.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: When you compare wolves and dogs, dogs are more social, more attracted towards people. And so the idea of the free-ranging dogs was to do this study with this population to be able to sort of see if it was comparable to the dogs at the Wolf Science Center. We were interested to know if we set up a situation where you were — had two people one feeding the dog and the other one offering cuddles to the dog first of all, would they accept it? Would they be interested in this kind of situation? And second, if we got to the point that the dog actually had experienced both people, one that gave cuddles and one that gave food, what would they choose? Would they choose then to come to the cuddler or to the feeder? And yeah, so it worked quite nicely. So we would drive around and at a certain point, we would find a dog. We would stop the car. One person would come out at the time from the inside of the car and suddenly open the door and pop out. And that person, if it was the cuddler, would kneel down and try and entice the dog to go towards them and do a little bit of a cuddle session. Instead if it was the feeder, they would pop out of the car and invite the dog to come over and to have food. And then the two people would re-disappear in the car, and pop out again together at the same time, and the dog could choose. And interestingly, they were super social in wanting to have cuddles as well as food. in the end we didn’t find there was a preference for one or the other. It seemed to be a very individual preference. Some dogs really chose the person that — the cuddle provider, let’s say and some chose the vending machine. So there wasn’t a single preferred choice.
HOROWITZ: Did you expect them to be as sociable as they were?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: No, not really. I think we were quite surprised. I mean we knew that the population was, social which was sort of a precondition for us but I think there is still quite something from going to not being scared to actively want to sort of interact with people and be stroked and just have that level of intimacy maybe isn’t not — quite the right word, but you know what I mean. That kind of level of engagement.
HOROWITZ: Also, what an interesting situation for the dogs to just see people popping out of a car and, and to be okay with that, right? That there is a little bit of self-selection there, that they’re curious or interested, and there might be dogs, I suppose, who you could never study because they just run away.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Absolutely. And I think this is the biggest challenge that we have, is that for the purposes of comparing them to pet dogs and the Wolf Science Center dogs and wolves, we have to select a population that is not scared. But this isn’t by no means representative of free-ranging dogs around the world. There is no way you can even generalize from this population to the rest.
HOROWITZ: I have an experiential question. You know, I’m always interested in the umwelt of a species. You know, what their world is like, what their perspective is. And this is a population I don’t have a lot of exposure to. So impressionistically, from your exposure to the Moroccan dogs, what do you think their life is like? Does it seem like a desirable life or is it a kind of nasty, brutish, and short life, as it were?
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Well, so yes, it is short the life. The mortality rate in puppies is extraordinarily high, so it’s not all peachy. The majority that we see are 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds. Very rarely do we see a dog that is over, yeah, 8 or 9. Having said that, I think where we are, they have a very rich life. They can decide who to spend their time with, where to go, who to mate with. They are all physically pretty, healthy. And they do have some pretty interesting relationships between them and with humans as well. So I think it’s very difficult to sort of ask a dog, “Are you happy?” But my first impression when I saw the photos was like, “Wow, these dogs just — they look amazing. They’re just running on the beach playing, and they, they just seem so happy.” And I think in general, that was confirmed. Then, of course, it’s not all of them like that. I mean, you do have dogs that are run over by cars. We have a couple of dogs that limp a lot, so they probably had a serious injury. But what I would really like is to get away from the idea that the only life for a dog is that of living on a sofa and going out maybe two or three times a day with the owner for a sort of, a walk around the block, because I’m not entirely sure that that is a higher-quality lifestyle than some of these free-ranging dogs that have been living alongside humans forever. So yeah. I think it — we just need to open our minds a bit to the possibility that there are multiple ways of having a good life and not just one for dogs.
While Sarah and her team study communities of stray dogs, once in a while the stories of individual strays come to our attention and tug at our heartstrings. A subway-riding dog in Moscow; Laika, the 15-pound Russian stray who became the first dog sent into space; or Zeytin, one of the dogs featured in Elizabeth Lo’s film. Recently, another free-ranging dog in Istanbul, Boji, made the news. Here’s his story, told via news stories read aloud by our producers at the Freakonomics Radio Network.
FROM CNN: A street dog named Boji has become something of a celebrity in Istanbul, where he travels around the city on its ferries, trams and subway cars.
FROM WASHINGTON POST: Boji is a regular Istanbul commuter, using the city’s public transport systems to get around, sometimes traveling up to 30 kilometers. … Most days he will pass through at least 29 metro stations and take at least 2 ferry rides. He has learned how and where to get on and off ferries.
FROM NY POST: Municipal officials in Istanbul track the drifting dog’s journeys through a microchip.
FROM CNN: The municipality also created a little kennel for him at one of their Metro stations, and they feed him whenever he wants to come back. But Boji prefers to roam.
FROM NY POST: The courteous canine has also been praised for respecting the rules of public transit, such as waiting for passengers to disembark before entering a train — etiquette that too many humans fail to observe.
FROM CNN: The dog even has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts with tens of thousands of followers.
FROM DOGTIME: Now, it seems that Boji has found himself caught in the middle of Turkey’s polarized political climate, with one side of it attempting to frame him.
FROM OPINDIA: A popular street dog named Boji was recently accused of defecating on the seat of a train in Istanbul in Turkey.
FROM AL-MONITOR: Then came a video posted by the Istanbul municipality’s spokesperson Murat Ongun. It showed a man taking feces out of a plastic bag in his pocket and planting it on the tram seat.
FROM HURRIYET DAILY NEWS: “After these speculations, we are afraid that someone would harm Boji. That’s why we want to give the dog to someone with a house on a large field,” said Murat Ongun, the municipality spokesperson. The statement by the spokesperson led to rising demand for adopting Boji, with people applying to the municipality in scores.
FROM HURRIYET DAILY NEWS 2: A Turkish billionaire has adopted Boji, Istanbul’s beloved stray dog.
FROM BIANET: İstanbul Metropolitan Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has announced that Boji … has been adopted by businessperson Ömer Koç. Posting a message on his Twitter account, Ekrem İmamoğlu has said, “Boji now has a home where he can roam around with ease and run freely. … Boji will have a sheltered home away from the people who want to hurt him and where he may run as he wishes.”
HOROWITZ: Elizabeth, it’s really just lovely hearing your thoughts on the state of dogs. And, apropos the dogs in the city, the extraordinary things are the kind of transparent things about their life, which is to say, they navigate traffic seamlessly. They join a protest. They accompany people on their commutes. They’re curious about owned dogs. They find plenty of food. They have relationships. They have their own schedule. It’s very hard to imagine dogs like that, right? I wonder if your thinking about owning a dog again has changed by seeing the lives of the dogs on their own terms in Istanbul.
LO: If I could move to a city, or start a movement within the city that I’m in to start accepting dogs as being free agents whose lives don’t have to be owned by us for them to be safe and to be worthy of living, I would much prefer that model. Because to have a being completely reliant on you, in the way that they have to be in cities like Hong Kong, New York or L.A. or wherever — there’s no way for them to be able to make a living on their own and to be free. That just feels like such a limited way to exist with another species. And it actually breaks my heart when I see dogs on leashes.
It’s an intriguing idea for those of us walking dogs on leashes to think about. Over the course of my own life, I’ve lived with several former stray dogs, who mostly came to our family via shelters which rescued them from the streets. “Rescued” is the word they use. But talking with Sarah, seeing the glimpse through Elizabeth’s camera of Zeytin and the other dogs of Istanbul, I think the issue has just become more complicated. For now, I look at the dog on the other end of my leash and I try to let her have the most dog-like life she can — while still sharing space with me on the sofa. If she wants.
* * *
Before we go, we have an update on Zeytin, one of the stars of Elizabeth Lo’s documentary, Stray. Since my walk with Elizabeth in 2021, something has happened. She was kind enough to send us a voicemail about it.
LO: I became concerned about Zeytin’s whereabouts after I started getting messages on Instagram from strangers who had watched my film, Stray, and asked me whether I had heard about the President Erdoğan rounding up stray dogs and Turkey. I looked into it and discovered that it was true and that it was actually happening across the country, near the end of 2021.
So I decided to fly to Istanbul to give myself a week to find her. We spent six days chasing rumors about her. We went to all the cafes and streets that I remembered she frequented, we went to all the vets asking them about whether they had treated Zeytin, we started searching through all the shelters and even forests where shelters are known to dump dogs. And we had no luck in finding her.
On the night before our departure from Istanbul, we had nearly given up, but by chance, on our way to dinner, we spotted this tan brown stray dog who was about the size of Zeytin, curled up inside a cafe I had never seen her go to before. It took us about 15 minutes of comparing photos that I’d taken of her, of where her ear tag was, what color it was to realize that it actually was Zeytin and that we had miraculously found her by pure chance. And so we put a G.P.S. tracking collar on her and asked a local Turkish animal advocate to come help us to take her to our hotel room, and then I had to figure out what to do.
So I reconnected with Mert Akkök, a man who lived outside Istanbul that I had met while filming in Turkey, and asked if he would take Zeytin in because I knew he could give her a really good life with other Turkish strays and not remove her from her homeland. It was a bittersweet because I knew that this glorious chapter of her life roaming, the streets of Istanbul freely had come to an end. But it comforted me to know that the second chapter of Zeytin’s life would be healthy and safe.
Thanks to Elizabeth Lo, Charmy, Sarah Marshall-Pescini — and to you for joining us on this walk today.
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Off Leash is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio, and is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network — which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by Molly Getman and Lyric Bowditch, with help from Jared Hohlt, Alison Craiglow, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. It was mixed by Greg Rippin and Jeremy Johnston.
Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Emma Tyrrell, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our music was composed by Luis Guerra.
To see behind-the-mic photos of all the dogs you met in this episode — or to share your thoughts on the show — follow Off Leash on Instagram and Twitter at @OffLeashShow. You can also shoot us an email at OffLeash@Freakonomics.com. To find a transcript, links to research, and a newsletter sign-up, go to Freakonomics.com. As always, thanks for listening.
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Hi! It’s Alexandra again. We loved making these episodes for you and would love to make more. The best way you can help us do that? Tell your friends, family, or even strangers you meet at the dog park about Off Leash. Thanks so much.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: There are some pet dogs that have a fantastic life and some pet dogs that have an absolutely abysmal life. You know, the number of coats that the dogs have doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to make them happy, right?
HOROWITZ: In fact, it might be an inverse relationship.
MARSHALL-PESCINI: Yeah, maybe, maybe.
- “The Role of Life Experience in Affecting Persistence: A Comparative Study Between Free-Ranging Dogs, Pet Dogs and Captive Pack Dogs,” by Martina Lazzaroni, Friederike Range, Lara Bernasconi, Larissa Darc, Maria Holtsch, Roberta Massimei, Akshay Rao, and Sarah Marshall-Pescini (PLOS One, 2020).
- Stray, by Elizabeth Lo (film, 2020).
- “Istanbul’s Beloved Stray Dog Adopted by Businessman,” (Hürriyet Daily News, 2022).
- “Turkish Politics Get Dirtier as Dog Framed for Pooping on Train,” by Nazlan Ertan (Al-Monitor, 2021).
- “The Adventures of Boji, Istanbul’s Traveling Dog,” by Kyle Almond (CNN, 2021).