Hundreds of dog lovers flocked to the Beirut waterfront last weekend for an event celebrating man’s best friend. The WoofFest on Oct 13-14 reflected not only the appreciation of dogs but the growing movement in Lebanon to protect the rights of animals.
The festival celebrates all things dog, such as spas, beauty contests, high-end dog treats and toys. Held in April for the first time, the organizers hope to organize the event twice a year, according to Roula Mezher, the event planner at MindWhisk that organizes the festival.
The Lebanese public's interest in a regular festival or permanent spaces for pets reflects the lack of public spaces for dogs in Beirut. The city has no dog parks and its narrow streets offer very few areas to comfortably walk.
Tala, a Beirut local attending WoofFest, told Al-Monitor, “We don’t have a lot of events for dogs, and most restaurants don’t allow dogs to come in.”
Tala said she and her three-year-old Pomeranian, Poochy, were lucky because “even if there aren’t any parks, next to my house there is a bit of empty road where I walk her.”
Due to the lack of public infrastructure, abandoned car parks and backstreets have been the go-to places to keep dogs healthy. However, this has left many dogs isolated, something WoofFest wants to change.
Mezher explained that her husky, Sasha, “is home most of the time.” She feels that “Sasha needs to mingle with other dogs.”
“Most dogs have never encountered other dogs. You can feel it. They feel so weird around each other,” Mezher said. “[The event] is also a serious message for Lebanon and the government. We need to have parks for dogs. We need to have spots to take our dogs to. … It is a must.”
The lack of public spaces for dogs and pressure for change is indicative of broader issues around the treatment of animals in Lebanon.
Dog ownership is relatively new to Lebanon. Sevine Fakhoury, a board member of the Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA), told Al-Monitor that during the Lebanese civil war few people owned pets and there was a stigma attached to dogs.
While dogs have become popular pets in recent years, there is still a lack of knowledge around the appropriate treatment, which BETA, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) established with the goal of improving the lives of animals in the country, is trying to address.
Fakhoury said that BETA members regularly meet with Lebanese government officials on issues from neutering stray dogs to combating rabies. Another issue often discussed was the proliferation of pet shops, which officials give permits to open, while not understanding the consequences.
She added, “People buy an animal and then they are not responsible guardians. They just leave the dog out on the street."
In May, the horrific repercussions of not appropriately managing the breeding and selling of dogs became apparent when BETA rescued 83 dogs from a facility in the seaside town of Jounieh. Ten of the most malnourished and sick dogs, mostly puppies, died within a few days.
However, Fakhoury told Al-Monitor that after “feeding and caring for them a few have been adopted.” But with 640 dogs already in their shelters there are limits to what groups like BETA can do, especially as the population of domestic dogs and strays grows.
Jason Meir, the director of Animals Lebanon, an NGO that campaigns for animal rights and welfare, told Al-Monitor that there are between 20,000 and 35,000 stray dogs in Lebanon. This number is largely due to some 500 pet shops in the country that import dogs and release them when they are not sold.
“If I am a pet shop [owner] and I don’t want the dog, I throw it on the street,” Meir said. “The authorities have done nothing to prevent pet shops from leaving the dogs on the streets. Neither are they planning to do [anything] in the future."
Meir stressed that animal rights are a new phenomenon in the region and they will only improve with time.
“When Animals Lebanon launched people openly laughed at what we were doing. … Now when you talk about it there is awareness and interest,” Meir said. “I firmly believe that more has been achieved in Lebanon in the last 10 years than in any other country during the same period.”
However, there is still work to be done, with extensive discussions on the treatment of animals.
In December 2017, a gruesome video posted by BETA on its Facebook page showed Ghobeiry municipality workers poisoning stray dogs. Despite the public outcry against using such methods to address the issue, videos of people killing stray dogs and cats still occur.
Fakhoury attributes such acts to a lack of education and negative stereotypes about dogs in the country, which events such as WoofFest are trying to address.
Mezher concluded, “In the media we see many people treating dogs in a bad way in Lebanon. But WoofFest showed me that the majority of people know how to treat their dogs and consider their dogs to be part of the family."
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