People and Community

Undergrad’s passion, perseverance liberated horses

Student senator Tuana Yazici’s dogged preparation and research helped free hundreds of abused carriage horses in her Turkish homeland.
Student senator Tauna Yazici’s dogged preparation and research helps free hundreds of abused carriage horses in her Turkish homeland.
University of Miami junior Tuana Yazici began her crusade to ban carriage horses in high school.

Just a year ago, hundreds of underfed, over-worked, maltreated carriage horses plodded the steep streets of Princes’ Islands, providing the same public transportation the car-free archipelago off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey, had relied on for centuries.

Today the horses have literally been put out to pasture, replaced by a fleet of quiet electric vehicles—a stunning animal rights victory owed in large part to the passion, perseverance, and vision of Tuana Yazici. 

The University of Miami junior who founded a club to liberate carriage horses in high school spent last summer spearheading a $15 million solution for changing the transportation system on the tourist islands near her birthplace. A video of the former carriage horses galloping across a lush field along the Sea of Marmara, where they are being rehabilitated and adopted, still brings Yazici to tears.

“There were 1,500 horses used for horse-drawn carriages on these islands and it feels pretty great to be able to say ‘were’ instead of ‘are,’ ” Yazici recently told an international audience, who tuned into her presentation hosted by The Humane League, on how she accomplished what was thought impossible. “This success was years and years and years overdue. Thousands of horses have suffered their entire lives and died as slaves,” she added.

Now just 20, Yazici, who was born in Turkey but moved to Boca Raton when she was 9, already has a number of remarkable achievements. The Florida captain of the league dedicated to ending cruelty to animals, she is a University of Miami student senator, chair of academic affairs, and Student Government’s representative to the Faculty Senate. An artist, she had her first of many art exhibitions at age 4. An author, she has written and illustrated four children’s books, publishing her first at age 7. An avid scholar who has studied at venerable universities around the world, she speaks Turkish, German, English, and French. A ballerina, pianist, martial arts aficionado, and flyboarder, she is close to earning her helicopter pilot’s license.

“Flying a helicopter quite literally helps me see different perspectives,” said Yazici, who created her own triple-pronged major from a politics, philosophy, and economics course she took at Oxford. “When you’re up there, everything is so small, and it forces you see the bigger picture.”

It was Yazici’s fresh perspective and exhaustive research, combined with the final outcome of Istanbul’s disputed elections last summer, that helped end decades of protests over the well-documented mistreatment of carriage horses on Princes’ Islands. Rarely living beyond a few years, many of them dropped dead in the street. The government buried about 400 corpses a year, but hundreds more were dumped in the forest, or the sea.

The student senator shares the credit for a three-month ban that became permanent last December with the new mayor of Istanbul, who ran for office promising to solve the city’s rampant problem of street dogs and cats. Assuming Ekrem Imamoglu to be an animal lover, Yazici set out to meet him “the minute he was elected” and present her $15 million plan for buying and compensating the owners of the islands’ horses and carriages and replacing the animals—and the livelihoods carriage drivers would lose—with electric vehicles that would create new jobs and preserve the tranquility of the tourist islands.

“I did my research and walked in with a fully developed plan,” she said. “I looked at their budget and showed them they had more than enough money to stop these protests, that compared to Istanbul’s GDP, $15 million wasn’t that much for a humane solution—for the horses, the owners, the drivers, and the community. The idea was nobody would lose.”

Yazici had an ideal ally in Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.
Yazici had an ideal ally in Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

Her argument worked. Just 37 days after Imamoglu took office last summer, he appointed Yazici his special advisor for a months-long workshop aimed at implementing her plan. Given what she viewed as a win-win solution, she was astonished by the rancor of the meetings, which once classes resumed last fall, she attended remotely from Miami, losing plenty of sleep with the seven-hour time difference. “It was mayhem. People were outraged,” Yazici recalled. “They said the history of the islands would be lost. I couldn’t believe so many educated people didn’t feel the same outrage over treating horses like industrial slaves.”

The fierce opposition did not surprise Yazici’s mentor, Peter Singer, a renowned Princeton University bioethicist and philosopher
credited with launching the modern animal rights movement. But he was shocked by what Yazici was able to accomplish.

“I did not expect Tuana would succeed, and certainly not so quickly,” Singer said. “She deserves a great deal of the credit. She is a very hard worker, a very dedicated and thoughtful person. She plans very well and, as she has shown, if you do that, you can get terrific results. And she’s gotten terrific results for animals already.”

Though Yazici’s mission to liberate carriage horses began in high school, she has been an animal rights activist since she was 6, when she nursed a newborn fawn, whose mother had been killed by hunters, to maturity. The story she wrote and pictures she drew about that experience would become a second best-selling children’s book, “If I Were a Fairy.” Published in four languages when she was 7, it described how she would use magical powers “to change the minds of hunters and have them love animals.” Shortly afterward, she became a vegetarian, and a regular contributor to BonBon, writing the magazine’s Green Page about protecting the environment and animals. A compilation of those articles became her second book.

A disturbing encounter when she was 15 and in Florence, Italy, studying oil painting, photography, and sketching, kindled her carriage crusade. Walking to class on a scorching day, she asked the owner of a visibly over-heated carriage horse why he didn’t take better care of the steed. “Mind your own business!” he yelled.

In that moment Yazici resolved to make it her business to end what she considered the cruel and archaic use of carriage horses around the world. “I researched the history,” she said. “Carriage horses used to be a crucial part of everyday life, but in today’s world they are unnecessary and used only to satisfy historical nostalgia.”

Administrators at her high school, St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, initially discouraged her from starting a club dedicated to exposing the “injustice, cruelty, and inhumanity” of carriage horses. They feared the organization might offend students and their families who were equestrians. But Yazici did her homework. She asked her equestrian friends how they felt about horses being forced to work in traffic with a metal bit in their mouths, a diaper tied to their rears, blinders blocking their view—and “a whip as their primary motivation.” 

No one objected to the Horse Liberation Club, which aimed to spread awareness about the issues with horse-drawn carriages. Her research on their evolution would become the backbone of her third book, “Horse Liberation.” It was published in both English and Turkish in 2017, the same year she released “Protecting Sea Turtles,” a product of the Turtle Habitation Club she also started at St. Andrew’s to educate the public about the harm plastic waste in the ocean poses to sea turtles. She did so, in part, by organizing beach cleanups that drew hundreds of volunteers and, along with her horse project, national recognition for her community service.

Next up, Yazici, who is working as a research assistant for a Harvard law professor this fall, hopes to help New York Mayor Bill de Blasio keep his campaign pledge to ban carriage horses in Central Park. Then, she plans to head to law school and focus on animal rights and international law.

“No matter what,” she said, “animals rights will always be part of my life.”