In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are hundreds of stray cats and dogs roaming the streets. Despite the cultural challenges a group of young Kurdish people is getting together to try and help sick, wounded or deserted animals.
Talking about animal rights in Iraq always brings up the same kinds of questions: Why should we care about stray cats and dogs when there are human beings in danger and need all around us?
Nonetheless there are still some locals who want to make a difference to the animals living on their streets.
Iraqi Kurdish man, Ribair Umar, 20, is one of them. When he was a child he was often told how dirty and dangerous the stray cats and dogs roaming the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan were. Yet somehow Umar felt for the animals. As a teenager, he used his own money to pay for veterinary care for several strays. “I feel pain when I see an animal being hurt,” the young man says. “Animals can be hurt just like humans but they cannot express their feelings.” Since then the Sulaymaniyah resident has put more of his time and effort into caring for the strays in his city.
Since then the Sulaymaniyah resident has put more of his time and effort into caring for the strays in his city.
Happily, for him, attitudes towards keeping pets in Iraq and in Iraqi Kurdistan have been changing over the past few years. For example, keeping dogs as pets is not seen the same way in the Middle East as it is in European countries.
I feel pain when I see an animal being hurt. Animals can be hurt just like humans but they cannot express their feelings.
In Islamic religion, dogs are considered unclean – one piece of scripture says that angels won’t enter a house where a dog is kept - and although a staunch Muslim would not treat canines unkindly, they would not keep a dog as a pet either; there is however some dispensation that allows dogs to be kept if they are working animals. However it seems that this is changing somewhat.
Changing attitudes: Baghdad pet owners meet every week in a park in the Iraqi capital.
A lot of families in Iraqi Kurdistan now keep pets at home. Still, this has not made life much easier for the stray cats and dogs in the region. There are no animals shelters and Kurdish drivers tend not to care if they hit an animal.
Stray dogs tend to live in less populated areas, often taking up residence in unfinished buildings. Stray cats live in more populated areas, scavenging food from the human population.
Together with 28-year-old Taza Hussein, Umar has founded the Savo Volunteers, to try and help the strays of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We are working to save the lives of all kinds of animals here especially stray dogs and cats who live on the streets and have nobody to care for them,” Hussein says. It’s a tough sell. People think the strays are filthy and dangerous vermin, she says, and she hears lots of swearing when she introduces the concept.
ROCKY (pictured). Borah was found as an orphaned puppy (below) and was almost dead when Savo found him. He was adopted by Hama Jaza, 22, who gave him a new name: Rocky. Nine months later, Jaza and Rocky are tight, Jaza says. “I love pets,” the young Kurdish man told NIQASH.
Savo Volunteers has a Facebook page and people contact the pair through that, messaging to inform them of groups of stray dogs or cats.
If the animals can be picked up, they are taken to a house in Sulaymaniyah rented especially for the purpose and housed there at a cost.
They are also taken to the vet and treated for any diseases. Once the animals are well enough, their pictures are posted on the Facebook page and members of the group who like the look of the animal will visit the house, and may start adoption procedures for the animal.
MIMI: Had been abused by locals when Savo found her three months ago and nursed her back to health.
Massoud Baba Sheikh runs a veterinary hospital in Sulaymaniyah and he and four other doctors there support the Savo volunteers by examining the stray animals free of charge and providing medicines at a sizeable discount.
“There are very few such organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan and what we do is a kind of human duty to animals,” Sheikh told NIQASH.
Any person who adopts a pet from the organization, which is completely funded by donations, is asked to sign a pledge that they will look after the animal for the duration of its life. Nobody is charged for adopting the animals and Umar believes he and other volunteers have already saved hundreds of animals in Iraqi Kurdistan.
When NIQASH visited the Savo volunteers, there was a fox living with Umar. He says he saw it at a local market where birds and animals re bought and sold and it was very sick and miserable, shivering in a corner. He bought it from the seller for IQD27,000 (about US$22) and it is now in good health again.
MIMI + DIRIN KHALIL: Three months ago, Mimi was in bad condition. Through Savo, she ended up being adopted by local man Khalil, 23. The pair get on so well Mimi is allowed to sleep on Khalil’s bed and although she is still weak, she is now recovering and gaining weight.
There were also three dogs and three cats in residence: Susie, Rooney and Luka. Susie has been there for four months as she is ill. Rooney was hit by a car and has a broken pelvis; he still can’t walk properly and Luka had a virus.
Savo has nothing to do with any political parties or the state, Umar says proudly.
“I’m not doing this for the glory or for money,” he says. “I just want to have a clear conscience.”
Story by Maaz Farhan / photos by Zmnako Ismael, in Sulaymaniyah