Hounding the strays of Istanbul

With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping. 

This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.

I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.

Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.

My good pal Red Tag
I fed them cans of tuna.
Red Tag, again

In space, no one can hear you woof

Sometimes I want to shoot the dog into outer space. Suit him up, slide on a big round helmet, and strap him into a tin-can capsule, ready go, boom

Really, I want to keep old Cubby on terra firma, safely earthbound, away from martians and pesky space debris. Still, when he barks and wails and scratches the paint off the door when visitors knock, I think: Jupiter, yes. Jupiter would be a fine place for a dog park.

Such was the fate of Laika the space dog, a small, blameless pup who was hurled into orbit for the Soviet space program in 1957. A stray street mongrel with a skittish gaze, Laika was really three animals in one: a dog, guinea pig, and sacrificial lamb. 

Laika the cosmic canine

Many critters had flown to space before Laika — monkeys, mice, mutts — but she was set to be the first to orbit Earth. Probably quaking with terror, surrounded by lab-coated apparatchiks, Laika was loaded into the satellite Sputnik 2 for an experimental flight to prove that a living passenger could survive a launch into orbit and weightlessness. 

It was a suicide mission, or more accurately, murder. Laika was never expected to survive; once they sealed the capsule, the Soviets knew she was toast. 

And toast is practically what she became. Within hours of her spectacular orbit, Laika died from overheating and panic. Even the Soviets were mortified: the true cause of her death was not made public until 2002. They initially said she was euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen ran out, a classic, blundering cover-up. The dead dog floated around up there for six months. She was incinerated when Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The world mourned the pioneer pooch. She’s gone down in lore as an unwitting hero, nicknamed Muttnick, and honored with commemorative stamps, dolls and children’s books. A monument to Laika was erected in Moscow in 2008.

Muttnick. I like that. Maybe, with a nod to David Bowie, she’s Major Dog. Or Apawlo 13. Or Chewbarka. Never mind. What matters is that Laika lived as a Moscow street hound and died for Soviet sins. A would-be martyr — Joan of Bark — she’s a helpless symbol of the sketchy side of science and progress.

Cubby should be so symbolic. But he’s of a different breed, and an entirely different kind of nobility. And though he wouldn’t last as long as brave Laika in space — I give him two, three hours tops — he’s ready for lift-off and would do NASA proud.

I could see him as a stowaway on the Mars rover (did you say Rover?) Perseverance, which is up there sniffing for signs of ancient Martian life. Or he might hitch a ride to the Moon on one of Elon Musk’s radical SpaceX rockets, joining other civilians who are nutsballs enough to pay millions to pierce the wild blue yonder. That would be fitting, because the dog is definitely daft, a total and irrevocable space cadet. (Fun facts: Laika means “bark” in Russian. Cubby means “preposterous” in any language.)

I’m glad Cubs is still on Earth to provide happiness and headaches, and I hope he sticks around before zipping off to Andromeda. Laika, well. She did the impossible for all mankind. She gave us enlightenment. She cracked opened scientific universes. She kissed the stars and the heavens, where she now eternally resides.

Laika’s monument

Loving animals, doggedly

As I was scratching the dog’s belly today, he squeaked out a tiny fart that I excused him for since, as far as I know, he can’t speak English and isn’t versed in basic human etiquette. I kept scratching and he emitted customary groans that I tend to interpret as vague doggie ecstasy. Sounds coming from both ends, très stereophonic.

Cubby the Wonder Mutt likes to lie on his back, supine, head tossed back, eyes squinched, rear legs spread-eagle, his pee-pee out in all its centerfold glory. He’s a good dog, as they say — always “good,” never “great” or “fabulous,” why is that? — even if he resembles one of those diabolical pygmy hellions, an Ewok. Compare, contrast: 

OK, not exactly, but sometimes I glance at him and scream in fleeting horror.

Animals, like ol’ Cubs, are always on my mind. For some reason, I’ve been watching more YouTube junk than normal and it seems like half the videos are prefaced with ads for heart-curdling, soul-gutting animal causes. 

They’re the kind that show emaciated puppies and starving bony horses and shivering dogs with so much eye goop they can barely see. It screws everything up. I don’t even feel like watching the video I was set to watch after those damn commercials. 

They get me every time. So there I go, helplessly dropping cash into the coffers of PETA, the Humane Society and other groups, like the crazy one for abused donkeys in India and the World Wildlife Fund’s stupendous adopt an octopus program. 

And I recently joined the ASPCA’s modest monthly membership, which amounts to an obscenely affordable 63 cents a day. I told them to save resources and keep the free t-shirt, which would only wind up as a dust rag. Pretty soon, thanks to all my donations, I’m going to own about 14 complimentary animal calendars that I really do not want.

I think I’m so nuts about animals and their welfare because I was raised with a rotating menagerie of pets: dogs, cats, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, hens, salamanders. And I was scarred by “family” films like “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” that only make you love animals more and hate sadistic filmmakers. Even “Charlotte’s Web” planted a screwdriver into my heart, and she was just a crummy spider. (Even now I don’t kill spiders. I scoop them up and plop them outside.)

I hate to rate my animals, but since Cubby is in the other room probably flashing the neighbors on his back, I present the best dog my family ever had, a black Lab dubiously named Spooker. That’s her below, the one flicking her tongue. (I’m the one with the righteous tiger slippers; my brother Craig sports the scandalous red onesie.)  

Usually when I profess my love of animals I essentially mean dogs. I care a lot about monkeys, mice and manatees, but I can’t say I love them. Even as tykes, you can see how much we love our big black Lab, our companion, our third parent, protector and pal. Dogs are furry clichés: loyal, cheerful, eager, bursting with unconditional love, even if that means the occasional, totally misguided leg hump. That’s a pretty good package. 

Cubby fits the bill. He sort of represents all animals for me — penguins, porpoises, platypuses, the random narwhal — and so by caring for him I’m embracing the whole animal kingdom. 

That sounds super corny, and re-reading that sentence makes me shudder. But it’s true. Cubby contains multitudes. He’s small in body, big in heart. He lavishes affection on us and only asks in return walks, food, and heartfelt belly rubs, the kind that make him groan and wheeze like a 79-year-old with emphysema. Sometimes if you press just right, he produces the tortured warbling of bagpipes. Then he slowly passes out.

A good dog indeed. No. A great dog. How about a fabulous dog.

Freud, meet Fido

And so the dog, small and fleecy, plops down for a nap on the couch, and he is out. Which means at any moment the show will commence, an alternately startling and amusing bugaloo of twitches and flinches, pop dancing by way of late Katharine Hepburn and robot street performers. Cubby, the peerless pup, is about to dream. And it’s a marvel. 

Behold, he’s off. Stubby legs kick and quiver. Furry eyebrows twitch. Lips tremble and emit muffled woofs and squeaky whines. As he hyperventilates, his rib cage rises and falls, a small basketball being pumped. It appears he is running in place. Outstanding.

Until, that is, I recall how traumatic dreams can be. Mine, at least, are nocturnal ordeals, dark and gnawing, filled with ragged memories and wraithlike faces from prior lives. They’re about 35% anodyne and 65% anguish. I typically awake from them with a small head throb, a daub of sweat, an aftertaste of dread: the dream hangover. I might as well have met Freddy Krueger.

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This is not Cubby, but you know he’s ecstatically dreaming.

So, no matter how entertaining his dream exhibitions are (oh, and they are), I worry about the substance of Cubby’s nap-time reveries. What’s he woofing at? Why the whine? Is he chasing, or being chased? Is he yawping at the postman, as in everyday life, or is he after an intruder? Is he playing with us, scampering off with his crazy bone?

Whatever is happening, he is assuredly dreaming. Anyone with a dog knows they do this. One doggie site says “dogs are similar to humans when it comes to sleep patterns and brain wave activity. Like humans, dogs enter a deep sleep stage during which their breathing becomes more irregular and they have rapid eye movements (REM).”

Bonus factoid: “Research suggests that small dogs dream more than larger dogs. A Toy Poodle may dream once every ten minutes while a Golden Retriever may only dream once every 90 minutes.” Meaning, compact Cubby is a dream machine. (“We infer that dogs can have nightmares, too,” adds the American Kennel Club, with worrying certitude.)

Sometimes Cubby’s slumbering exhalations sound heavy, husky, demonic. Is he having a nightmare, or is he being naughty and promiscuous? Maybe he’s rocking a death metal show. “The dream is the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter,” wrote Freud, the original cigar-sucking dream guru. He added: “Dreams are never concerned with trivia.”

So maybe Cubby isn’t just frolicking with a bone during his alarmingly kinetic dream states, which resemble nothing less than a buckling seizure or a zippy electrocution. I’ve said here that Cubs is a deep character, a wise old soul, vigorously seeking meaning in his transience, pawing to the bottom of the mysteries of the conundrum called life. Merely chasing cats is unworthy of his elevated subconscious; sniffing Bowzer’s butthole is extravagantly beneath him.

The id, that deep sea of sloshing neuroses, engenders the happy and the hellacious and everything in-between. In sleep, you might trip joyously in love — or you might be scorched to a pork rind by a weirdly random dragon. Closing eyes, placing head to pillow, is a fraught crap shoot. 

Cubby’s not dreaming about dragons, we’re certain of that. His purview is relatively minuscule. Despite his rich introspection, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what TikTok, J.Lo or The Rock are.

I’m also sure I will never know what populates the dog’s leg-twitching dreamscapes. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Yet with Freudian reflection, I will ponder these deep enigmas. Let me sleep on it.

Dog Splayed Afternoon

CubbyThis is Cubby, über-hound, chillaxing on the cool wood floor on a balmy late-spring day. Sprawled out in sharp symmetry, almost X-shaped, he looks like a doggie cookie-cutter, or the puppy piece in Monopoly, or a pendant dangling from the neck of a dog lover of strenuous devotion. In a word, he looks amazing. Like an artwork Jeff Koons could only dream of, or a taxidermist’s dampest fantasy. He would look stunning on a mantel, a small, regal canine, with a muzzle oh-so fluffily bearded.

Cubby knows none of this. If he had heard the above during his spread-out siesta, he’d be all, “Enough. Leave me alone. I am napping on the cool floor, dreaming of squirrels, fire hydrants, and fat kielbasas. You are a ridiculous man. Be gone … zzzzz.”

What we have here is a tableau titled, say, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or “Dog Splayed Afternoon.” Some kind of post-modern still-life William Wegman could appreciate in all its unposed dogitude. (Although, of course, Wegman meticulously poses his long-suffering Weimaraners, what with their fancy clothes and anthropomorphic exertions.)

So what we have is less Wegman and more found art. Cubby, surely warm under that carpet of curls, located open range in the cool foyer, plopped down and stretched out from his head to his pom-pom tail. He exhaled and sighed: Goddam.

And this is how we found him, still as a statue, a statue of such accidental perfection it might be worth lots of money. Certainly, because his preternatural pose notwithstanding, Cubby, that cuddliest of canines, is worth a million bucks.

Buyers?

Fido meets the face mask

What, social distancing with the dog? Six feet apart? Are we going to scratch his belly with a broom stick? Throw the ball and ask him to please not return it, or to drench it in Purell first? And, pshaw, a mutt mask, too? How is he possibly going to blithely lick his loins?

Fortunately, most of this scenario is wryly fictive. Yet we tried the face mask and the bristling, headstrong Cubby was having none of it. He ate it. Cubby, so marvelous he should wear a cape, isn’t falling for all this preventive Covid-19 twaddle. He scoffs, nay, woofs, at it. 

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Not Cubby. Just a stunt dog.

Is he being irresponsible, a paragon of screw-you selfishness? Is he following in the paw tracks of our dear leader in all his voluptuous stupidity? Is Cubby, heaven forfend, a far right anti-vaxxer, who protests outside capitols to “liberate” shut-down states? Is it OK to put down a dog that is spry and healthy but whose mind is politically poisoned?

We go too far. The dog is none of that, despite his puzzling penchant for “Fox & Friends.” He’s actually kind and magnanimous. He’s wise, thoughtful, deep. He’s voting for Biden. He’s a good dog.

Rossy is a good dog, too. Who is Rossy? This is Rossy: 

rossy-blog-768x576-1.jpgRossy, in a word, is a charity case. A sickly street dog, Rossy was taken in by the brimming hearts at Animal Rahat, an India-based rescue sanctuary for all manner of “beleaguered animals,” which I previously mentioned here. Rossy is goo-gooed over by visiting school children and hangs out and plays with the local menagerie of misfits over acres and acres of open land. 

This pampering paradise “allows elderly and ailing animals to be retired from lives of daily toil” and rescues imperiled pups and other critters from assorted accidents (falling into wells is a big problem). Nursed back to health, dogs and donkeys and camels and cows roam free, routinely fed, bathed and lovingly socialized. 

As he watches me type this, Cubby’s curly ears prick up and his head cocks to the side. We are in a donating mood during this deepened charitable moment when giving is grace. 

I lean toward animal causes — local shelters, the Humane Society, ASPCA, PETA, Animal Rahat — all of which have plucked my heart strings with the virtuosic brio of Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption.” It’s music to my ears.

Himself a rescue pup, Cubby is also pledging gifts to these groups, his furry families, though I’m not sure what he can contribute; he’s rather broke. Could it be the tooth-scarred bully bone? The moist, balding tennis ball? The mini Yoda doll, both squeaky and skeevy. (Dog slobber — destroyer of worlds.)  

It doesn’t matter. I’ll spot him with my monetary donations. Watching me is a good lesson in altruism during these darkly divisive times when much of the country is in suicide mode — no masks, frolicking on crowded beaches, flagrant body contact, toting large guns in packed public spaces — and the “president” advances brain-exploding lies, toxic misinformation and Machiavellian myopia.

Speaking of individuals who elect vanity over safety, Cubby still won’t wear a face mask. Even the mailman wears one, and his arrival at the porch is a cue for Cubs to shed his angelic image. He rockets off the couch, furiously scratches the paint off the door, barking and howling uncontrollably, like a very pissed-off banshee. It’s nearly cinematic.

We sigh. We yell. We shake a fist.

Hey, Cubby. Cut the crap.

Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

Pin the tail on a good cause

I don’t care what they’re doing, where they are, or what condition they’re in — donkeys unfailingly crack my heart. That includes old brooding Eeyore, even if his despondency seems almost willed, like the chump shrugged and gave up and became a droopy black cloud of clinical donkey depression. (How does chipper Pooh put up with him?) 

Eeyore, a stuffed animal held captive by Disney, isn’t my concern. It’s real donkeys, which always look pitifully downcast, afflicted and abused. I’ve seen them in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, China, Thailand, India, Mexico, Morocco. These distant relatives of horses are exploited largely as beasts of burden, weighed down with pound after backbreaking pound of cargo, whipped and lashed, mostly in Asia and Africa. In China, which owns the bulk of the world’s 41 million donkeys, donkey meat is a delicacy. (Alongside cat, dog, rat, shark, horse, snake, porcupine, raccoon, deer — it’s a hell of a menu.)

I was reminded of the donkey plight — I generally try to banish thoughts of wretched pack animals — when I was distracted by an online ad for the Indian animal sanctuary Animal Rahat, which rescues cows, bulls, dogs, birds, camels, snakes, donkeys and more from rampant hazards, neglect and abuse across the despairing subcontinent.  

2007-03.donkeys-hauling-bricks-at-brick-kiln-4.jpgThe ad spotlighted donkeys, which, as mentioned, I reserve a soft spot for. Photos of emaciated, crestfallen, injured animals accompanied a plea to sponsor donkeys for as low as $12. That donation would provide vaccinations and antibiotics for 30 donkeys. I immediately clicked my PayPal account. (The donation funnels through PETA, which sends it to Animal Rahat.)  

The creatures have it as bad as imagined, and worse. Says Animal Rahat: 

“It’s a common belief in India that ‘beasts of burden’ don’t need as much nourishment as other animals, so they are commonly left to scavenge through garbage piles to find food scraps. It’s only a matter of time before our vets are called out to provide these neglected animals with emergency treatment after they swallow plastic and sharp objects.”

I read more, I donated more. I’m in the mood. I know this is Covid-19’s moment, but animal causes are in perpetual panic. The virus is exacerbating the situation. I’ve also given money to PETA, two local animal shelters and the SPCA. I’m sure I’ll do more.

The damn donkeys. They captured my heart, with those big dewy eyes, pointy vertical ears and stout mini-horse bodies. The mounds of bricks strapped to their backs didn’t hurt. Maybe I’m a pushover, a fool. Maybe I’m one of them, just an incurable jackass. Fine.  080319-8-blog-3-768x576.jpg

(“Rahat,” incidentally, means “carefreeness” or “insouciance” in Urdu. I like it. For more about Animal Rahat, go here.)

The blessing of boredom

Get outside.

The experts speak this as an imperative. The words throb with anxious urgency.

GET. OUT. SIDE.

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They urge us to recess from in-house isolation, get fresh air and do brisk exercise near home. It is health-smart, holistic and good for the body, mind and, if possible, social maintenance, though the latter is rife with rules: keep a six-foot spread between bodies; no physical contact; wear a face mask (we all look ridiculous, like third-rate bandits); spray hissing mists of Lysol® all around, including on your friends, who will thank you later. Or not.  

About all that’s left in outside activity, besides risky trips to the store, is a lone jog, a bike ride or a walk with a fellow homebound relative through the apocalyptically empty neighborhoods of Coronaville, whose population, once robust, plunges by the day.

So there I am, taking a stroll about our idyllic, all-American hood, which is suddenly shrink-wrapped in dread. It’s a breezy 60-something degrees with hazy, semi-blinding sunshine. Blooms and petals swirl everywhere, polka-dotting streets and sidewalks, celebratory confetti for spring’s arrival.

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I wear burgundy track pants and a burgundy hoodie, looking like a tall glass of pinot noir, something I wish I had with me to offset the tedium of aimless ambling. But Cubby the unflappable fur ball is with me (pandemic, shandemic, he woofs) and we walk up the hill, to the thriving rose gardens, him stopping, sniffing and tinkling every two feet, doing the one-leg-in-the-air thing, a kind of yoga that instills both wonder and winces. (Is this Downward Dog?)

We are not alone. I count six other mutts and their masters walking about, puttering and peeing, shouting across the way to waving friends who are well over the prescriptive six feet apart. The gist: Be well, take care, say hello to so and so! Oddly, I hear no one say, This sucks! Spirits are high. We are the healthy ones, strolling in the sunshine. For now.

Despite the fine weather — I strain to call it that, for spring is my second least favorite season — it’s time to go back inside and resume being a stolid, musty homebody who reads, writes, sees movies and does a bit of what you’re looking at. As boredom overtakes outside, it’s time for a new brand of boredom inside, one filled with sighs and gripes and yawns and, in those precious moments of clarity, a reasoned muttering: Thank heaven.