I remember my disappointment years ago when I took my young daughter to watch Disney’s movie, The Little Mermaid. It is one of my favourite fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen. Disney prefers to slap happy endings on the stories they adapt for children’s films, but in doing so, they diminished this tragically beautiful story about forgiveness, selflessness and self-sacrifice. I was reminded of this recently when my friend, Zeynep, told me about her dog, Gümüş. There are countless success stories of animal rescue: dogs who are saved from cruelty, restored from illness and starvation, some even placed in loving homes around the world through the efforts of international rescue organizations. Their happy endings go viral with thousands of views on youtube, where they bring tears to our eyes and restore our faith in humanity. For every uplifting happy ending, however, there are many more that end tragically in anonymity, but like Andersen’s mermaid, the suffering is no less poignant, the life no less meaningful. Such is the story of Zeynep & Gümüş.
Zeynep grew up with cats and dogs in a Turkish coastal village on the Black Sea near the border with Bulgaria. Her father loved dogs and when relocation to a town did not permit the family to keep one in their home, they left their German Shepherd, Kurt, in the care of a rural farmer. The pain of separation was softened when Zeynep and her sisters would periodically awaken to find Kurt inside their apartment. “How did he get here?” they asked their father in amazement. “I don’t know,” he said, “I just woke up and found him here.” The skeptical expression on their mother’s face was a clue that even if Kurt had figured out how to walk all the way to their town from the farm, there was no way he could have entered their building and apartment without some assistance. Kurt would spend these visits in a joyful family reunion until it was time for their father to load him into the car and drive him back to the farm. To this day, Zeynep has a special place in her heart for German Shepherds.
Stray dogs are a prolific feature of the urban landscape in Istanbul and there is a cultural ambivalence towards them. Not all Turks share the love and respect for dogs that Zeynep inherited from her parents. While some are kind and offer food and water to their neighborhood strays, it is rare for people to take them into their homes because of a belief that dogs, especially their saliva, are impure and unclean. For some, it is inconceivable that anyone would have dogs for any purpose other than herding or hunting. Once when Zeynep and I were walking our dogs, some passersby glared at us and asked, “Why do you waste your time and money on these filthy dogs instead of helping people?” Zeynep calmly replied, “Who says that I do not give time and money to help people?” That silenced them, but did not soften the expression of contempt on their faces.
In June, reports of an abused dog in Zeynep’s neighborhood were circulating on social media. On 9 June, as Zeynep was driving home, she saw a man standing at the back of a truck, shoving a small, emaciated dog, its snout and paws bound, into a sack. She slammed on the brakes and called her friend Beril, an animal rescue activist, who informed her that Turkish law permits the intervention of citizens to stop animal abuse. Zeynep confronted the man, who was nasty to her and claimed he was taking the dog to a veterinarian. She stood her ground even when he threatened to strike her with a metal rod. Finally, he flung the dog in the sack to the ground, where it managed to get its legs free and run for its life.
Zeynep could see the dog was starved, the mange-hardened skin pulled tight across his bones. She ran after him and called, “Stop, GÜMÜŞ, stop!” She told me, “It was a name from nowhere.” The word means “silver” and it popped into her mind for no clear reason, but in this rushed moment, the dog was given a name. Zeynep realised that the chase only frightened him more, so she turned and circled from the other side of the park to intercept him. He was stunned when she appeared in front of him and dropped to the ground to embrace him. Again, she called Beril, who asked for her location and instructed her to stay right where she was. In the panic of those minutes, Zeynep does not know how much time passed as she tried to comfort the terrified animal in her arms, she only remembers looking up to suddenly see a wall of white. Beril stepped out of a white car and, when the vehicle passed, another animal-loving friend, Gurbet, suddenly appeared. Just as Gümüş’ name seemingly came out of nowhere, so did the three people who swooped in to save him that day.
There are plenty of animal support groups on social media where lots of people post reports of animals in distress, but many fewer people actually respond to these incidents and do something constructive to help. Beril and Gurbet belong to the latter category. They sprang into action and gave Zeynep the benefit of their combined years of rescue knowledge and experience. They went directly to a veterinarian who charged a discounted rate for treating a street animal. She ran copious tests, prescribed medications, all of which Gurbet helped Zeynep administer daily. They placed Gümüş on an antibiotic, vitamins and an iron-and-protein-rich diet; treated him for parasites, yeast infection and inflammation; used a medicated shampoo to wash the mange-infected skin and soothe the oozing, bleeding sores on his body. He took refuge in Zeynep’s garden, but she realised he was not comfortable there when he dragged himself from her yard to the shady, cool entrance gate of a neighbor’s house - a very long way for him to crawl in his condition. She carried him home and cleared out a place for him in the basement storage room, which maintains an ideal, cool temperature for storing wine. The basement was simultaneously transformed into an office for Zeynep and a recovery ward for Gümüş, who settled right in.
Zeynep told me that after a number of unsuccessful romances earlier in life, she assured herself that one day she would meet the right man, who would be so good to her that the heartbreak of all previous relationships would vanish. She was right and this came to pass with her husband, the love of her life. She will never know what experiences Gümüş had with human beings before she found him. Did he once have a family (or families) that cared for him? Was he abandoned, lost or a stray on the street all his life? Had he known human kindness or had he only known cruelty? Whatever it was, Zeynep was determined that he would know only love for the rest of his life. He responded. His skin lesions healed and fur began to grow back. He went from sixteen to twenty-two kilos. He regained energy and, though he was reluctant, Zeynep managed to walk him on a leash. For a month, he looked and felt so good that when all his test results were clean and normal, the vet felt it was safe to vaccinate him. All signs were pointing towards a happy ending….and then things took a sudden turn.
Gümüş regressed and, as always, Gurbet and Beril rushed to assist. Problems with his eyes and his nose appeared, the skin lesions returned. He had trouble with his bladder despite normal test results for his internal organs. They went to another vet, who diagnosed kidney failure and began to administer a serum. The vet offered to keep him at the clinic, but Zeynep wanted him at home where he would feel safe and loved by the people around him. She took him into her arms and started to sing Benim annem güzel annem, the beautiful Turkish lullaby My Mother, My Beautiful Mother.
Küçücükken başucumda Bana ninni söylerdin Sabahları uyanınca Beni okşar severdim
Benim annem güzel annem Beni al kollarına Kucağında uyut beni Ninniler söyle yine
Bugün hala kulağımda Çınlıyor tatlı sesin Benim annem kalbimin sen En güzel yerindesin
Benim annem güzel annem Beni al kollarına Kucağında uyut beni Ninniler söyle yine
Zeynep sang, “When I was little, you sang to me. When I got up in the morning you smelled me and kissed me. My mother, my beautiful mother, take me in your arms again, hold me in your lap and sing me lullabies. My Gümüş, my little Gümüş, come to me, I will hold you in my arms and sing you beautiful songs.” When the end was near, Beril recognised it and helped him through his death throes. Gümüş struggled to take three final deep breaths, life ebbing from his exhausted body. With the third breath, his spirit passed on 4 August at 11:30 in the morning.
Zeynep does not believe that her little Gümüş, the dog with the name from nowhere, had a happy ending, but Beril asserts that those last weeks of his life demonstrate why we should never turn our backs on a sick street animal, even if we believe its life cannot be saved. With Zeynep’s attention, compassion, love and respect, there was one month at the end of his hard life when he knew what it was to feel better. Given the neglect and abuse he endured on the streets, those final two months may have brought the only human kindness he’d ever known. Like Zeynep, he finally met the right person, who was so good to him that the pain of all previous human encounters could be put to rest. As with the little mermaid, I find beauty in his tragedy, love mixed with pain, happiness in the sorrow that makes his story every bit as important and meaningful as any with a happy ending.