The “freedom” of imprisonment for Istanbul’s horses

What is awaiting the horses in Istanbul’s Prince Islands?

Who’d like to spend the whole summer in plastic tents, tied there from their necks? This seems to be the near future of the horses bought from their owners by the Municipality of Istanbul, Turkey.

Below you will find a summary / timeline of what has happened to hundreds of horses since December 20, 2019, when many were put to death by the authorities due to glanders disease.

The tent-stables in Aya Nikola, Büyükada (Prinkipo), Prince Islands, Istanbul. May 17, 2020.

Most people in Turkey are made to believe that the horses of the Prince Islands are “rescued” from horse carriages, as a result of a broad campaign against this tradition (Remember the campaigns to ban New York’s horse carriages?). Although it was a fact that some owners had been treating the animals badly, the broad call was not for the municipality and the Ministry of Agriculture to carry out their duties of inspecting the system properly, but to abolish it altogether, without responding to the simple question of what would become of the horses.

Thus it is rather difficult for some parts of the public to accept that what they considered to be an “achievement” for animals’ rights has actually been a disaster for the horses. As one horseman says, “Horses are our mirrors and now in this mirror we see our own disgrace.”

The “freedom” of imprisonment

Five months ago, with glanders disease as the stated reason, the Governorate of Istanbul banned “using horses on horse carriages” for three months on Istanbul’s historic Price Islands of Burgazada (Antigone), Heybeliada (Halki) and Büyükada (Prinkipos), where horse carriages are the only legal vehicle of transport.

All the horses were locked up in their stables according to this decree, while the stables did not have paddocks as the horses would normally run while they worked, and often left free to move around at other times. (The official number of horses on the islands was 1378, but estimated to be around 1700 with many brought into the islands through unofficial means. 105 horses were killed due to the disease in the first week of the so-called quarantine, while their glanders test results were never shared with the public.)

Due to lack of movement, many horses have died during these three months. We estimate that more than 360 of the horses held in stables and later in plastic tents in Büyükada have died because of “quarantine” conditions.

On January 16, Istanbul Municipality Council unanimously decided to buy all the horses and horse carriages on the islands. The decision was announced as the abolishment of horse carriages.

Two months later, on March 16, although there were almost no carriages left on the island and horses were already put to death for glanders, the Governorate of Istanbul extended “the ban on using horses on horse carriages” for three more months, until June 19, 2020.

In the meantime, Istanbul Municipality began buying the horses and carriages. Some coachmen who did not want to part from their horses were forced to sell them as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests did not allocate land for the horses to live and shelter, and the stables were under the threat of destruction (the land belongs to the Ministry / State).

“Ispark” Stables of Istanbul Municipality, Büyükada, February 13, 2020. Photo: Adaların Atları – “Horses of the Islands” Platform.

According to information by the Municipality of Istanbul, 1,225 horses were bought in this way as of February 28. 145 horses from Heybeliada were bought from their owners the following week, and only five of Heybeliada’s horses are not sold to the Municipality. [Simple maths: 1225 + 145 = 1370 should be the number of horses bought.]

Despite the coronavirus pandemic –first case in Turkey was announced on March 11- the stables in Burgazada and Heybeliada were destroyed on March 25 and 27, by the District Municipality of the islands, upon a decree by the Governorate of Istanbul. The stables on these two islands, where only 17 horses not sold to the Municipality still live, may be destroyed any time.

What’s more, the glanders disease was not diagnosed on any of the horses of Burgazada and Heybeliada, and their stables were glanders-free, but all these horses were taken to Büyükada, to stables found to have the disease, and plastic tents were built to host horses in Büyükada. Glanders is an infectious disease. Shutting the animals into stables all together means creating the ideal conditions to spread the disease. In case glanders is ever found again on these islands, the District Directorate of Agriculture and the Municipality of Istanbul are directly responsible of the situation.

Together with the horses brought from Burgazada and Heybeliada islands, all horses now belonging to the Municipality of Istanbul were placed in the Ispark Stables and the plastic tents built in Aya Nikola, both in Büyükada.  

According to Istanbul Municipality’s written answers to our questions, it owns 1,167 horses as of March 31, and keeps them all on Büyükada. [Simple maths: 1370 – 1167 = 203 horses must have died between Feb 28 and March 31, 2020, after being bought by the Municipality.]

We know that only 32 horses have not been sold to the Municipality, which shows that a drastic number of them have died because of the bans and conditions shutting them into stables. [Simple maths: 32 (horses not sold) + 1167 (horses bought by the Municipality) = 1199, 1700 (estimated initial number of horses) – 1199 = 501.  501 – 105 (killed for glanders) = 396 horses lost!]

As there are horses dying, new foals are born as well. Around forty foals are trying to keep alive and grow up in concrete stables and plastic tents. It is especially worrisome that the foals might not make it in hot tents during the summer.

Where are we in the end of five months?

The horses bought by the Municipality mainly live within close spaces and are kept tied. They are let out to “air” in a limited space for short periods of time. In short, the horses “freed” from carriages are now imprisoned in stables and tents. They lack an adequate number of grooms and adequate paddocks to move.

A paddock where they could run would save the horses’ lives. This was the main demand of a petition signed by around 30 thousand people since the beginning of the so-called “quarantine.” A small paddock was formed next to the Municipality’s Ispark Stable on April 12, the 115th day of imprisonment. This space can be used by at most 50 horses at the same time, while Ispark holds around 800 of them. [The two other places are the Aya Nikola tent area with about 200 horses and a recently opened small paddock, and Yörükali stables once used by the coachmen, home to 96 horses, all in good condition as the coachmen were able to rent a field for them to run in the beginning of the “quarantine.” Nowadays, the Municipality shoots and shares some videos from Yörükali’s paddock, declaring the horses are now happy and free. It gets applause and credit for these delusive videos.]

A “paddock” which is more like the airing space of a prison, where 50 of the 800 horses in Ispark Stables can “enjoy” – These horses don’t know each other, they are not a herd. Photo: Adaların Atları – “Horses of the Islands” Platform, April 2020.

In these five months, neither the Municipality of Istanbul, nor the Ministry of Agriculture, nor the groups who kept guards in front of the Municipality to set the horses “free” from the carriages could come up with a viable plan to keep the horses alive and well.

While the Municipality had declared they would buy the horses and let them live in a place allocated by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry never showed such a place. According to the Municipality of Istanbul, the reason that they couldn’t open a paddock field for the horses and that the stables had to be run down is because the Ministry and the Governorate did not allow them to use the land. The Municipality, however, does not declare this to the public, and makes no moves to change the situation as far as we can see.

The only “project” developed by the Municipality in all this time is to give away the horses it has bought from their owners to persons, institutions and cooperatives. The authorities from the Municipality have been telling us –and not the public!– that they “cannot look after the horses “till the end”, complaining of the high cost of taking care of them. But the Municipality doesn’t inform the public about the conditions sought for giving away the horses –despite the fact that we have proposed some.

Although people normally don’t eat horse meat in Turkey, and horses are thought to be loved and respected animals, the decision to give the horses for free has whet some butchers’ appetite, some have already asked to get 700 of these horses to sell them as meat (these people were rejected by the Municipality as we exposed the news and they received a strong reaction). The only means to protect the “free” horses from slaughter or being used in serum production is to get media and public attention.

From one fence to another… horses on the “paddock” of Ispark Stables. Photo: Adaların Atları – “Horses of the Islands” Platform, May 17, 2020.

The final “development” is, as Bekir Pakdemirli, the Minister of Agriculture proudly presents, that horses and rabbits will be used in anti-serum production against coronavirus. The horses “freed” from horse carriages in İzmir were sent off to be used in serum production (December 2019). Is this the fate awaiting the horses of the islands?

If suffering is freedom, keep it for yourself, and let the horses live on the islands

Above everything else, we believe that we are responsible of the lives and futures of the horses we have been living together for many years.

We do not accept that the future of the remaining 1,200 horses is determined and brushed off by the unreasoned decisions of some people who have never had anything to do with horses.

We find it incomprehensible that it is not at all possible to (re)create the possibility of living on the islands together with the horses kept in good health and peace.

We want that the horses of the islands to retain living on the islands, that they are allowed to run freely in the islands’ forests like they did every year until this spring. The controlled conditions for horses to live safely and healthily can and should be provided, and the islands are the first places to do this. We want the stables to be renewed with appropriate conditions, and that people who would like to work with horses in favourable conditions are not banned from doing so.

The Municipality of Istanbul should live up to the responsibility it has taken by buying the horses. The Municipality, after buying the horses from their owners via public resources, can make no excuse by saying they have no budget to cover the living costs of the horses it now owns. Giving off the horses for free and deporting them from their homes on the islands does not serve the wellbeing of horses in any sense.

The horses that now belong to the Municipality of Istanbul can work on the islands and provide their own livelihood. As it is with human beings, working in safe and sound conditions is not cruelty towards animals. Furthermore, there are many horses already in retirement, not hitched to carriages but only fed and loved by their former owners. The Municipality, their new owner, can and should also provide them with the facility to live on the islands, in their home, without working. It is now an obligation for the Municipality of Istanbul, the Governorate of Istanbul, and the Ministry of Agriculture to provide the best sheltering, working, retirement and living conditions for the horses that they have separated from their human families.

Please follow the developments related to the horses on Istanbul’s Prince Islands via website and social media channels (we have some English content and many images that speak for themselves).

Our petition to let the horses live on the islands:

Burgazada (Antigoni) before horses were locked up. Photo: Found on Facebook.

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