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Operation Turkey Dog: Why We Adopted a Golden Retriever from Turkey

Overcrowded shelters in Istanbul and other cities often release a dozen or more dogs at a time in uninhabited areas like the forest. Rescue groups help them find loving homes in the U.S.

By Laura Randall

The dog's name was Meeko and his smile stretched from one floppy ear to another.

He was found abandoned and alone in the mountains of northern Turkey and would be arriving in Los Angeles on a flight from Istanbul in a few days. Was my family interested in fostering him?

We took one look at the attached photo and said yes.

Two happy golden retriever dogs in an airport. Next Avenue, adopted golden retriever, turkey
Meeko and his companion, Leo, posed for the camera in Istanbul before they boarded a 13-hour flight to the U.S. Credit: Emel Üçüncüoğlu  |  Credit: Siyami Tekin

When we signed up to be first-time fosters earlier this year, we had no idea we would end up with an amiable four-year-old golden retriever from halfway around the world. Most of the dogs taken in by our local animal rescue group come from southern California. Some are owner surrenders, some are found wandering on busy streets and many are saved from euthanasia at shelters.

Fostering a dog from so far away seemed odd, but we soon learned that Meeko's long, complicated journey was far from unique.

Fostering a dog from so far away seemed odd, but we soon learned that Meeko's long, complicated journey was far from unique. He is one of thousands of dogs brought from Turkey to the United States in the last decade through a team effort between rescuers in both countries.

International pet adoptions in the U.S. are relatively common, particularly from parts of Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, according to Adam Parascandola, vice president of the Animal Rescue Team at the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International. Due to increased awareness of the dog meat trade, there has also been a recent uptick in organized efforts to rescue dogs from China and South Korea, he says.

'Almost No Chance of Survival'

But the situation in Turkey stands out for a variety of reasons. 

Golden retrievers are a popular breed in Turkey and often adopted as puppies from pet stores, says Nancy Zellmer, treasurer for the southern California-based rescue group Rover's Retreat.

"If a child wants a new toy, or a puppy, they buy one," she says. But as the dogs grow bigger, owners often lose interest or tire of caring for them and abandon them on the street or in municipal shelters, where "they have almost no chance of survival."

Overcrowded shelters in Istanbul and other cities often release a dozen or more dogs at a time in uninhabited areas like the forest, Zellmer says. "There is no food, water or shelter, extreme temperatures, and the dogs have to fight to survive."

A scared looking dog in a crate. Next Avenue, adopted golden retriever, turkey
After he was found in a rural forest, Meeko was transported by crate to a rescuer's property.  |  Credit: Siyami Tekin

Golden retrievers like Meeko don't fare well on the streets or in forests, notes Amy Lake, development and marketing director of Retrieve a Golden of the Midwest (RAGOM). "They have poor survival skills and won't defend themselves, so their survival depends on people helping them." 

When animal lovers in Istanbul learned of the abandoned forest dogs, they organized group outings to bring them food and water. Others opened their homes or farms to the dogs and began working with rescuers to bring some to the U.S., where golden retrievers are in high demand.

"We know we will have eager adopters for dogs we bring over from Turkey," notes Lake, whose Minnesota-based group has rescued about 130 dogs from Turkey in the last seven years.

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Operation Turkey Dog

Meeko's own story unfolded as we waited for him and another dog, Leo, to arrive by crate after a thirteen-hour flight. It was a sad but common tale, according to his rescuers. A family vacationing in a resort town found Meeko alone in a nearby forest trying to extract water from a wild cucumber. They cared for him for the duration of their vacation, then he was brought to a ranch property owned by Emel Üçüncüoğlu and Siyami Tekin.

The couple, who are in their mid-50s, take care of as many as 160 dogs and 60 cats at a time, says Zellmer, who has visited their three-acre property in western Turkey. The animals are quarantined when they arrive until they are vaccinated and tested for health issues, she says.

Many dogs in a grassy yard. Next Avenue, adopted golden retriever, turkey
Emel Üçüncüoğlu and Siyami Tekin care for as many as 160 dogs and 60 cats at a time on their two-acre property in Gömeç, Turkey.   |  Credit: Siyami Tekin

Any dog bound for the U.S. lives inside their home so they can learn about their habits and needs. Leo, an equally affable golden retriever with a silky white coat, also came from Emel and Siyami's property. The couple took him in after he lost his family in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated southern and central Turkey in 2023.

"They have dedicated their lives to saving animals," says Zellmer.

Operation Turkey Dog, as some call it, has been wildly successful from the perspective of both the rescuers and the families who adopt them. At the same time, it sometimes sparks funny looks or questions: Why would one rescue a dog from another country when so many desperately need homes here?

"While we certainly understand the people involved in these efforts are providing a solution that not only helps individual dogs, but [those] deeply moved by these dogs' plight, this is really not financially sustainable or effective on the whole to address the actual issue," says Katherine Polak, vice president of Companion Animals and Engagement at Humane Society International (HSI).

Over 10 dogs in a small kitchen waiting for food. Next Avenue, adopted golden retriever, turkey
Emel Üçüncüoğlu and Siyami Tekin's rescue property  |  Credit: Siyami Tekin

HSI, she explains, prefers to focus on improving public awareness, providing affordable veterinary services, and reducing local abandonment in those countries.

Rescuers, however, say their international work has not hindered their efforts to save domestic dogs. RAGOM's Amy Lake estimates that dogs from Turkey make up 5% of the total dogs her group has rescued.

"From [our] perspective, rescue has no geographical boundary," says Zellmer. Rover's Retreat, she points out, recently brought in a dozen Golden Bernese dogs from a New Mexico breeder who was looking to get dispose of them because "they weren't sellable."

One of the biggest challenges has been a temporary suspension of dog imports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control from 113 countries deemed "high risk" for rabies, including Turkey. Coupled with stricter screening and vaccination requirements required even for dogs that have obtained advance written approval to enter the U.S., the 2021 ban has severely curtailed their ability to bring in dogs from other countries, rescue groups say.

"International transport of dogs, particularly after COVID, has become expensive, cumbersome, and logistically difficult from many parts of the world," notes Polak. The CDC is expected to release new dog importation requirements this summer.

Introducing Boris

Despite the obstacles, animal rescuers say they will continue to fundraise and do what they can to save Turkey's abandoned dogs.

A dog playing with their owner at home. Next Avenue, adopted golden retriever, turkey
Meeko (now Boris) goofing off in his new home in Los Angeles.  |  Credit: Laura Randall

In January, Meeko and Leo received a royal welcome when they emerged from their crates, tails wagging, at a dog relief area outside baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport. Volunteers from Rover's Retreat gave us bags of lamb-based kibble, to resemble the dogs' daily meals in Turkey, along with toys, treats and blankets. We were told to expect a crazy night as the dogs shook off jet lag and adjusted to their new surroundings.

Indeed, Meeko's first days in the U.S. resembled the chaos and unpredictability of a newborn's first days. He ate and drank voraciously, paced the house and barked at unfamiliar noises and sights like mirrors and fire hydrants. He wasn't used to a leash and would lay down at his leisure during a walk, sometimes in the middle of the street. My husband and teenage sons started calling him Boris and the name stuck. We all agreed it fit his oversized, ebullient, tail-wagging personality.

By the end of two weeks, he was chasing tennis balls, obeying basic commands and making friends with all the other dogs in the neighborhood. It was tough to imagine life without Boris. We joined the legions of foster failures and welcomed him to the family.

Contributor Laura Randall
Laura Randall is a freelance writer and the author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California," as well as several other hiking and travel guides. Her web site is AuthorLauraRandall.com.  
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