Boji is a regular passenger on Istanbul ferries. (Credit: Vedat Arik)

A stray dog named Boji has become the focus of political and cultural polarisation in Turkey after finding fame for his use of Istanbul’s public transport network. 

Boji is often spotted riding on the city’s trams, metro trains and ferries, and has become a star among many Istanbul residents, who post pictures of him on social media, and even won international media attention. 

His popularity led to the Istanbul city authorities taking Boji for a health check-up and fitting him with a microchip so he can be tracked.

“We figured that since he’s such a good passenger, which is a hard-to-come-by phenomenon, we shouldn’t lose him,” said Aylin Erol, head of customer relations for the Istanbul Metro.   

Boji has become a star among many Istanbul residents, who praise him for being well behaved while using Istanbul’s public transport network. (Credit: Vedat Arik)

Boji’s detractors, however, have accused him of defecating on public transport. The claim was first made publicly by a news portal named Sağdan Haber, Turkish for ‘news from the right,’ with the headline ‘Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality [IBB] staff dog defecates on tram.’

The claim quickly became a sensation on social media, prompting the IBB, which is currently governed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), to respond publicly. with a video on the social media accounts of their spokesperson Murat Ongun.

“There were claims that Boji had pooped on the tram, but the cameras showed us these unbelievable scenes. Please watch,” Ongun posted on social media, alongside a video that showed a man in his sixties take feces from his pocket and smear it on the tram’s seats.

Boji patiently waits for a train at a metro station in Istanbul. (Credit: Vedat Arik)

Turkey, especially Istanbul, is notable for the affection shown by residents to stray animals. Almost every street in the city features food and water bowls set out for the cats and dogs that live on the streets. 

However, this approach is not unanimously adopted by all residents of the metropolis. The IBB has been widely criticised by social media accounts supportive of the country’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) for protecting Boji’s access to public transport. 

Boji was previously targeted by Yeni Şafak daily, a government-friendly news outlet, for footage where he was seen playing with a passenger’s bag. 

“Chipped by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and let loose on public transport, the stray dog known as Boji strolls aimlessly, attacks passengers, bites them and chews on their bags. Citizens protested the municipality’s inaction despite rising protests by sharing this footage,” read the article.

Burak Bilgehan Özpek, an Istanbul-based academic and political commentator, told Inside Turkey that the issue highlights the gulf between secular, urban middle class Turkey and the more devout, socially conservative voters who make up the AKP’s base. 

“Events, figures and concepts popularised by this [first] group are seen by the AKP as things that need to be condemned and made the centre of debate,” said Özpek. “Especially on social media, a venue where the AKP struggles to restrict fanatics, any small incident causes an uproar.” 

Boji prepares to get on a train. (Credit: Vedat Arik)

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also recently made dogs a political issue. On December25, he exhorted so-called white Turks – the country’s affluent urban population – to “keep your animals under control”.

Erdoğan was responding to a recent incident in which a four-year-old girl in Gaziantep province in south-eastern Turkey was injured by two pitbulls. After the president’s intervention, the environment ministry ordered municipalities across the country to keep several breeds of dogs, including pitbulls, under 24-hour surveillance. Strays are to be collected and taken to municipal kennels. 

Boji taking a nap among amused passengers. (Credit: Vedat Arik)

According to Özpek, what “started as a debate around aggressive stray animals” has “ended up being about dog owners’ economic class and social identity,” thanks to the president’s public intervention. 

According to Doğan Gürpınar, a social scientist at Istanbul Technical University, pet ownership has long been seen as a symbol of secular, upper-middle class life in Turkey.

“Having a pet symbolised the worry-free, sterile world of those clueless about the hardships of life,” Gürpınar said. 

“After the 90s, pets became more popular and interest in animals spread. During this crisis, Islamist politicians used pets to brand their enemies ‘elitist’. So pets continue to be ammunition in moments of crisis.”