Are There Some Truths Behind 'Isle of Dogs'?

The film 'Isle of Dogs' stirs memories of a real-life exile of dogs.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

SandeepHanda photo - Creative Commons License CC0
Source: SandeepHanda photo - Creative Commons License CC0

A friend of mine had just returned from a unique opening day showing of Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated feature film Isle of Dogs. What was special about this showing is that the audience members were permitted to bring their pet dogs into the theater for the viewing.

The film is set in a future time in a fictional Japanese metropolis called Megasaki City, which is run by an iron-fisted, cat-loving, and dog-hating mayor. Under the pretext that the city was facing a potential outbreak of a "dog flu" that may be fatal to people, he has all of the dogs in the city picked up and sent to a place called "Trash Island." There is virtually no food available on the island, which is used not only for normal trash, but also for toxic waste. One of the dogs that was picked up and exiled is owned by the mayor's 12-year-old ward, Atari. Desperate to retrieve his beloved dog, the boy steals a plane, crash lands on the island, and begins to search for her with the help of a pack of stranded dogs. The voices of these dogs are provided by a star-studded cast, including Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and Ed Norton, to name a few. It is a sharp, funny, and ultimately heartwarming film, as the boy and his new canine companions plod through the desolate wasteland to rescue his treasured pet.

My friend was quite enthusiastic about the film, with one reservation: "You have to get past the plot contrivance where all the dogs in a city are scooped up and placed on a remote island, where they are left to die. But once you accept that fantastic premise, the film turns into a wonderful, love-driven adventure."

I poured some coffee for him and sat down to explain, "Japanese dogs that speak perfect English is a fantastic premise, but the idea that someone might arrange to have all of the dogs in a city taken and stranded on an island sadly has some historical validity."

He seemed surprised and asked me to explain further, so I began by telling him that throughout the Middle East, there have always been large populations of ownerless dogs living on the streets in urban areas. Although, in general, the relationship between these street dogs and people is benign and friendly, sometimes dogs do become a problem because of aggressive behaviors, or because they sometimes carry or spread disease.

Islamic scholars tell of an incident where the Governor of Medina became concerned about the number of stray dogs overrunning his city. He was particularly worried about the threat of rabies and some other zoonotic diseases that were spread by the pariah dogs foraging through the garbage. So he obtained an audience with the prophet Mohammed in which he requested permission to kill all of the dogs in his province. At first Mohammed took the uncompromising position that all the dogs should be exterminated and issued the often-quoted command "Kill all dogs." On reflection, however, he mitigated his decree for two major reasons. The first was religious, namely that canines constituted a race of Allah's creatures, and He who created the race should be the only one to dictate that it should be removed from the Earth. The second, more pragmatic, reason was that some categories of dogs, particularly guard dogs, hunting dogs, and shepherd dogs, were useful to humans and therefore had earned their right to exist. According to some accounts, his compassion for dogs may have been reinforced by the fact that the prophet himself actually owned one or more Salukis that he liked to use for hunting.

In 1911, in Constantinople, the words of the prophet were forgotten, and a great canine tragedy occurred. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) had taken power and had decided to make Constantinople into a more modern, European-style city. One of the first tasks that they took upon themselves was to get rid of the stray dogs that wandered the city. Cevdet Pasha of the ruling party even published a book in which he described what disgusting creatures stray dogs were and how they were indicators of an uncivilized country. Eventually the interior minister, Talat Pasha, launched the largest stray dog slaughter campaign in history. Thousands of stray dogs were rounded up and sent to a barren island called Sivriada. There was no expectation that these dogs would survive, since there is no source of water on the island, no food, and not even a single tree.

When the residents of the city saw what was happening to the dogs, they began to protest. The government's actions were not only cruel, but also contrary to the ideas behind Mohammed's decision pertaining to the dogs of Medina. Their pleas and arguments were ignored, and 80,000 dogs were gathered up and dumped on this tiny barren island.

Pierre Loti, a French naval officer who was in Constantinople at the time wrote, “They were doomed to the worst of massacres, even though none of them had bitten a single person. No Turk wanted to assume this sacrilegious duty that would bring down a curse upon the Crescent. This is why thugs and bandits were assigned the task."

All of the dogs that were taken to the island died, mostly from hunger or thirst; some drowned while trying to swim away from the from this hellish place, and others died of dehydration from drinking the briny water surrounding the island. The painful cries from the dogs could be heard in the quiet hours of the evening in the city, and many people found it unbearable.

Almost as if it were a confirmation of the sinfulness of these actions, there was a severe earthquake that immediately followed the event. This was perceived by the city's population as "a punishment by God for abandoning the dogs," and so opposition to the government began to rise in intensity.

The ruling CUP party now felt that the situation was beginning to threaten their power. In response, they immediately formed an "Association of Protection of Stray Dogs." The insincerity of this action was obvious, since Talat Pasha, the minister who was in charge of the scooping up of the dogs and leaving them to die, was appointed the chairman of this group. Some historians say that the antagonism to the government over the massacre of the dogs ultimately triggered a chain of events which led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps even to the Balkan Wars.

What is perhaps most remarkable about all of these events is that, in some ways, they are still with us. In 2012, in Istanbul (the city of Constantinople simply renamed), it seemed as though the cycle was about to repeat itself. Once again, a government was in power which had set itself the goal of "modernizing" the city. In contemporary Istanbul, stray dogs still wander the streets. There is a mindset that remains strong within the older districts that these street dogs are legitimate denizens of the city. Usually, the municipal authorities round these dogs up, vaccinate and spay or neuter them, and then release them back into the streets with ear tags.

The current government has grand ambitions to make the city into some kind of global hub on the order of New York or Paris. Within this context, strays are often seen as representing tradition and backwardness. The government claims that the sight of dogs in the streets gives the impression that one is viewing a poor and primitive community. For example, consider one government statement which sounds like it could have come from Cevdet Pasha's 1910 book that was used to justify the massacre of dogs: "For a city to appear modern it must have clean, orderly's streets, where shoppers and businessmen are not harassed by strays."

So in 2012, the government was proposing a bill in which all of the stray dogs would be gathered up and confined, not to an island, but in specifically created "natural habitat parks" outside of the city. The government claimed that this is all for the welfare of the animals, and these places of confinement "could be visited by schoolchildren and the dogs could be made available for adoption."

This time, the opposition was organized. They remembered the dog massacre of 1911, and feared that this was simply a government ruse to collect the dogs in an isolated location and to initiate a similar wholesale slaughter. Thousands of people protested and marched in the streets. It seems as though the politicians finally remembered their history, since the uproar that the proposal raised has resulted in an indefinite postponement of the parliamentary vote on the draft law.

The film Isle of Dogs is an upbeat and entertaining piece of fantasy that never mentions the Constantinople dog massacre, but for some of us, it serves as a reminder that sometimes human actions can have cruel outcomes when it comes to our animal companions. But our emotional bonds with our dogs are strong, and hopefully there will never again be a real-life version of an Isle of Dogs.

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