Thirty dogs have of starvation and thirst in a dog jail in Kahrizak, a suburb south of Tehran. The shocking news broke just a couple of weeks ago, and was somehow overlooked amid the heat of Iran’s presidential elections.
All of these dogs had owners. Ahmad-Reza Radan, commander of Tehran's Armed Forces Corps, warned dog owners to refrain from walking them on the streets. He said, "As summer approaches, we will make an effort to stop people from bringing out their dogs in their cars or parading them on the streets to show off. We won't have any of that."
Radan stuck to his word. Dog owners were stopped while driving with their dogs, and the dogs were taken away. People walking dogs did not stand a better chance. My cousin who lives in Tehran owns a small fluffy white dog that was taken away from her as she walked it. The dogs are literally "arrested" and taken to jail. Some are freed through posting bail, others that remain unaccounted for are taken to dog prisons; one of the better known ones is in Kahrizak. Imprisoned dogs are kept in extremely poor conditions, usually among garbage, and often times without adequate food and water.
In 2007, a wave of arresting dogs and harassing their owners rose and fell. The fall may have been, at least in part, thanks to the reaction from many animal rights' organizations — including one of the strongest calls by the Humane Society International's reaction — calling upon the Iranian government to put an end to hurting these harmless animals, with the message, "[The] Humane Society demands amnesty for Iranian dogs.”
The Islamic Republic shows great hostility toward dogs. The government claims two reasons for this: the fact that Islam condemns cohabitation with dogs, and the fact that more affluent people could afford to own a dog, and that is troubling since they believe dog owners are generally spoiled rotten, from rich families who don’t have real problems. Owning a dog is considered a luxury, one inclined to the West, and that could be reason enough for angering the administration.
Although Islam allows the use of dogs for hunting or herding, it believes dogs to be “najes,” the religious equivalent of unclean or dirty. In case of a najes person or object, Islam dictates using a certain amount of water to wash away the so-called dirt and filth — which is called "nejasat," the noun for najes. There would simply be no resolution, however, to cleansing an actual source of nejasat. Washing such a source would never shake the dirty material within it, according to Islam. This belief is ingrained in Persian culture and language, and among the majority of Iranians who are Muslim.
Saadi, one of Iran’s greatest poets, talks about this very issue in the verses of quite a few of his poems. In one of them, Saadi writes, “If you wash a dog with the water of the seven seas, it will end up dirtier than ever.” The notion behind Saadi’s poem is supposedly the incorrigible nature of some creatures, including some humans. He employs one of the plainest cultural examples to make the idea understood and succeeds in doing so.
The Islamic Republic often takes refuge in Islam and its limitations and regulations to pave the way for justifying and implementing the rules it would like to enforce in society.
Though there are a limited number of veterinarian hospitals and veterinary medicine is taught in some universities in Iran, such amenities — albeit necessary — are not easily accessible. Dog owners have a tough time finding food for their pets. The other obstacle is the high price of such goods. These elements play a significant role in defining who could practically own and keep a dog. Dog owners generally belong to the upper-middle class or are wealthy, more modern, non-religious Iranians.
In a phone conversation with my friend whose dog was arrested and jailed for nearly two weeks, she described the emotional trauma she was put through until she was able to get together a hefty amount of money for bailing her dog out: “When they grabbed and took Max away, I wept, asking them to let him go. I kept calling out Max’s name and begging the guards to give my baby back. It was at that moment — when I called him my baby — that two of the guards really lost it. They used profanity, yelling, “You spoiled rich people don’t know what life’s real problems are! People don’t have enough money to buy bread and you are crying for a filthy good-for-nothing dog?! Shame on you! There are so many orphans in this country and you call this dirty thing your baby?! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Another element that makes the Iranian law enforcement furious is Iranian dogs’ names. Most dogs bear non-Persian names, and their Western names — according to the Islamic Republic — are a disgrace.
Dogs without proper documentation to prove ownership, and dogs with owners who simply do not have enough bail money handy, or the ones with owners who are scared of or cautious about stepping foot anywhere near law enforcement officials, are destined to be abandoned or to die.
The municipalities in different cities take care of stray dogs. Sometimes they are shot. They ask people to report the whereabouts of stray dogs and say they need to be killed for fear of spreading diseases.
Another friend who is a dentist in Tehran owns a small fluffy dog that she takes to her mother’s house during the day while she and her husband are at work. Her mother was walking the dog one day, when she came across a neighbor and stopped to talk. She said she was walking her grandchild. A guard who passed by at the exact same moment overheard her and said, “Go tell your spoiled kid to make a real child.” Then, he asked to see the dog’s documents, which she did not have on her. She was eventually able to convince the guard to walk home with her rather than arrest the dog. She showed him the papers, and he finally left.
I had a conversation with my uncle, who lives in Iran and has two dogs, during which he explained how he and his wife would rather keep the dogs in the yard than take the risk of walking them outside their home. He described how difficult this could be for their German Shepherds, and being larger they require more space to move about. He used to take them mountain climbing — which they enjoyed — but he said following the crackdown on dogs, he no longer takes them with him.
Toward the end of our conversation, my uncle joked, “Well, I guess Rex and Joey would be luckier than us if they get to migrate to America. At least two of our family members would lead a better life.”
Mehrnaz Samimi is an Iranian-American journalist.