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Renewed crackdown targets Iran’s dog lovers

by Mitra Amiri

AFP-JIJI

Iran is again cracking down on people with pet dogs, viewed as unclean in Islam, but Soroush Mobaraki says sales are booming despite fears the pooches might be “arrested” and the owners fined.

Sitting in the small Tehran pet shop he owns, the veterinary pharmacologist said “there has been a sharp increase in demand for dogs in recent years.

“We sell 15 to 20 dogs a month, but I know some other traders who sell many more,” Mobaraki, 34, said.

For decades, keeping dogs as pets was a rarity and thus tolerated in Iran, where the Islamic beliefs cherished by the vast majority of its society consider dogs as “najis,” or unclean.

Guard dogs, sheep dogs and hounds have always been acceptable, but the soaring number of pets acquired by a middle class keen to imitate Western culture in recent years has alarmed authorities, who have now criminalized walking dogs in public, or driving them around Tehran.

“You see, for me, she is not only a pet but a family member,” Nahal, 28, who declined to give her full name, said of her 2-year-old Pomeranian.

Mobaraki says many Iranians today boast about their pets, and some even show off in style, noting, “They want to have a dog (to brag about), like they want to have an expensive luxury car.”

Reports of lap dogs dressed in Western designer clothes and accessories, being driven around in fancy cars or walked in parks in affluent Tehran neighborhoods have drawn the ire of hard-line clerics.

In June 2010, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi labeled dog companionship “a blind imitation” of Western culture, warning that such behavior would lead to family corruption and damage societal values.

“Many people in the West love their dogs more than their wives and children,” he was quoted as saying in the media.

Those remarks, and a decree issued by Shirazi, created grounds for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to forbid all media from publishing ads about pets. The restrictions, implemented in 2010, forced many breeders to keep their dogs out of sight.

“We are not allowed to keep them in pet shops,” said Mobaraki, speaking from his safe haven in a garden outside Tehran. “I only bring them here when I have struck a deal in advance with the buyer.”

The popularity of the un-Islamic trend has also forced the police to reinforce its sporadic crackdown on dogs. Officers “will confront those who walk their dogs in the streets. Cars carrying dogs will also be impounded,” deputy police Chief Ahmad Reza Radan said in April, according to the Fars news agency.

Animal rights activists have questioned the legality of the crackdown.

“There are no laws that forbid dog ownership, or their transportation,” said the Iran Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in an open letter to Radan’s boss, police Chief Esmail Ahmadi Moqadam.

The animal rights group’s complaint against what it called “a widespread arrest of dogs,” in which dozens were taken to “undisclosed locations,” never received an official police response.

Bahman Keshavarz, former head of the National Union of Iranian Court Attorneys, said pets can only be legally taken away if the owner fails to observe hygiene standards. “Confiscating pets without a judicial verdict is unacceptable,” Keshavarz said in remarks reported by Bahar daily May 4, arguing that owners can file for losses under the civil liability law if their pet is removed illegally.

Previous crackdowns saw dogs returned after their owners paid a fine and signed a pledge to observe the moral code. But some say that is no longer the case.

“Owners are being told that their dogs will be killed, and no paper (confirming the confiscation) is given to them,” the chief of a Tehran pet hospital, Payam Mohebi, was quoted as saying by Bahar.

For now, the police warning seems to have effectively scared off dog lovers, forcing some to walk their animals in secluded areas and request home calls by veterinarians. Nahal said she walks her dog at night to avoid confiscation, but some others are left with little choice.

“I don’t dare to take my dog out with me any more,” said a middle-aged woman, who asked not to be named, at a park in western Tehran. “So we left her home today.”

The 2010 ban on pet-related advertising, including for pet food, has redirected some animal enthusiasts to the Internet.

“Most of our customers go on our website to pick the dog they want,” said Mobaraki, who refused to share the Internet address for fear of retribution. “There they can even find useful information on different breeds, and on how to take good care of pets.”

The online practice picked up after lawmakers in 2011 proposed a law to ban dogs from public places and even private flats, saying pet ownership posed “a cultural problem” as well as “a danger to public health.” Addressing the “growing number of dog owners,” the bill specified that violators would be fined and “their animal confiscated.”

But it was never put to a vote as some lawmakers, as well as animal rights activists, opposed the motion.

Today, Iranians can go online to find professional dog training schools, private trainers and even “dog hotels,” most of which boast international certificates and even experienced foreign trainers. Dedicated pages on popular social networking sites, including Facebook, are also common.

But there can be a downside to the market.

Amirhossein, 42, a breeder from the central city of Isfahan, said some of his competitors keep their animals in cramped, dirty conditions without sufficient veterinary care. And then there are instances of false advertising.

“The websites attract dog buyers with irresistible pictures and phony promises,” he warned. “But the dog you get may not be the one you picked.”