When people at Adopt a Golden Atlanta learn of a dog in need, they know exactly what to do – and they do it fast. Typically, the time between first phone call and foster home is two days.
Except, last year the organization blew its average in a big way when a single rescue took four months to execute. But that can be forgiven considering the operation involved international borders, a 12-hour flight, and 36 Golden Retrievers.
Last May, Adopt a Golden Atlanta rescued its first Golden Retrievers from Istanbul, Turkey. Since then, and with other Golden Retriever rescue organizations signing on, some 250 “Turkey dogs” have been rehomed in the United States.
“We’ve always said, ‘It doesn’t matter where a Golden Retriever lives, if there’s a need and there’s not anyone close who can help, we’ll go rescue,’” says Lauren Genkinger, founder and president of Adopt a Golden Atlanta.
While no one knows how many abandoned Golden Retrievers are in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, estimates put the figure at 2,000 to 4,000. Golden Retriever puppies have become a popular fad in the country. Families buy them to amuse their children during vacations, then leave them behind at beach resorts. People give them to one another as birthday and wedding gifts. The novelty wears off when the adorable puppies grow into adult dogs. Many end up abandoned to the streets and forests or given up to shelters.
Goldens, with their sweet temperaments, are ill-equipped to survive on their own, particularly among the street dogs who have long been part of the cityscape in Istanbul. Goldens have been attacked by other dogs, mistreated by humans, and hit by cars. Some starve to death.
Many people in Istanbul have taken pity on the Goldens. They bring them food and try to find them homes, but there are just too many dogs to save. The situation is reversed in the U.S., where Golden Retriever rescue groups have waiting lists because there are so few Goldens available for adoption. Last year, an American living in Istanbul found her way to Adopt a Golden Atlanta, hoping to somehow connect the Turkish dogs with U.S. adopters.
After Genkinger got over her shock at the news that purebred Goldens are running rampant in Istanbul, she got down to the work of figuring out the logistics of transporting the dogs. When the National Rescue Committee of the Golden Retriever Club of America declared that it would support the effort because it wouldn’t put any Golden Retrievers in this country at risk, other rescue organizations — including Golden Re-Triever Rescue Inc. and Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue — came on board.
Now, nine months since the first “Operation Turkey Dog” airlift arrived in Atlanta, Golden Retrievers are flying from Istanbul to airports in New York, Chicago, Florida, and California. Often, rescue groups team up to share the cost of each transport, which is roughly $1,600 per dog.
Each rescue operation has become a well-oiled machine. Volunteers in Turkey round up the dogs, get them vetted, vaccinated, and microchipped. They hold the dogs for 10 days to make sure they are healthy enough to travel. On departure day, the volunteers fit each dog with a collar embroidered with the name and telephone number of the destination rescue organization. As a final touch, they slip a hand-beaded good-luck talisman around each dog’s neck.
The Golden Retrievers arrive on American soil packaged like a warehouse shipment, one dog per pet carrier, 18 carriers to a pallet. They glide into a receiving area via forklift. Genkinger says she hears the dogs before she sees them, first one will bark, then the rest join in. When the paperwork clears, volunteers swoop in to remove the straps and netting that secure the kennels. They take the dogs out for a much-needed potty break and clean and disinfect the kennels.
You would think that after living life as a stray and enduring a long flight (often with a layover), the dogs would be stressed. They aren’t.
“They’re rolling upside down for belly rubs, they’re playing with each other,” says New Jersey’s Golden Re-Triever Rescue Inc., treasurer Eileen McFadden, who is planning her third Turkish rescue in May. “They’re happy because they’re out of the crate, they’re with all their pals, they have water, they have treats, they’re being petted.”
Remarkably, even the dogs who arrive injured or needing medical care retain their sunny Golden Retriever dispositions. Genkinger theorizes it’s because the dogs were socialized early, starting their lives as pets, then relying on the kindness of strangers for handouts.
But not everybody can be trusted. McFadden’s newly adopted dog, Davey Crockett, was found beaten nearly to death on a street in Izmir. He has a swollen face and miserable expression in the first photo McFadden saw of him. Now, the only remaining sign of Davey’s past is that he flinches at hand signals as if he’s afraid of being hit. McFadden says her dog would be dead if he had been left behind in Turkey.
Life is so harsh on the streets of Istanbul, that when Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue in Hudson, Massachusetts, requested older dogs since rehoming senior Golden Retrievers is an essential mission of the organization, they found out there aren’t any.
“We were told they don’t live that long,” the organization’s director Allyson MacKenna says.
Not everybody has embraced the rescue operation. Genkinger has been accused over social media of selling the Golden Retrievers for medical experiments, using them to transport drugs, and worse. The distrust has started to affect the Turkish volunteers. One was assaulted while trying to bring a Golden Retriever to safety. Genkinger is trying to ease concerns by carefully documenting the whereabouts of each adopted dog. She has supplied this information to the Turkish government.
“There are no (dog) rescues over there. They don’t understand the concept of rescue,” she says. “Why would you go to the shelter to adopt a dog when you can pick one up off the street?”
Meanwhile in North America, volunteers in the Midwest and Colorado are so enthusiastic about finding homes for the Turkish Goldens, they’re willing to drive half a day to pick up their dogs at an airport. And in January, representatives from a rescue in Ontario, Canada, drove to New York’s Kennedy Airport for a pickup. Afterward, they and their 18 newly arrived Turkish Golden Retrievers spent the night at a hotel to rest up for the ride home. To people committed to saving Golden Retrievers, this doesn’t seem extreme.
When people are asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ As long as we have the resources,” Genkinger says.
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About the author: Sharron Kahn Luttrell is author of the memoir Weekends with Daisy (Simon & Schuster), about co-raising a service dog-in-training with a prison inmate.