- By Ali Hamedani
- BBC World Service
“He looks at me with his beautiful innocent eyes. He asks me to take him for a walk, but I dare not. We will be arrested.”
Mahsa, a dog owner from Tehran, refers to a new wave of arrests of pet owners and the seizure of their animals in the city.
Police in the Iranian capital recently announced that walking dogs in city parks was a “crime”.
This ban was justified as a measure to “protect public safety”.
Meanwhile, after months of debate, Iran’s parliament may soon approve a bill entitled “Protection of public rights against animals”, which will largely restrict pet ownership.
Under the new bill, pet owners will be subject to a permit issued by a special committee. The law also provides a minimum fine of approximately $ 800 for “importing, buying and selling, transporting and possessing” a variety of animals, including pets such as cats, turtles and rabbits.
“The debates over this bill began more than ten years ago when a group of Iranian lawmakers tried to advance a law to confiscate all dogs and give them to zoos or leave them in the deserts,” Dr. Payam Mohebi, President of the Iranian Veterinarian. Association, and opposed to the bill, told the BBC.
“Over the years, they changed it several times and even discussed corporal punishment for dog owners. But their plan got nowhere,” adds Dr. Mohebi.
A symbol of Iranian city life
Keeping dogs has always been common in rural Iran, but these animals also became a symbol of urban life in the 20th century.
Iran was one of the first countries in the Middle East to pass animal welfare laws in 1948, and the government funded the first institution to promote animal rights. Even the country’s royal family had their dogs.
But the Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed many aspects of the lives of Iranian citizens and dogs.
These animals are considered unclean in the Islamic tradition. In the eyes of the new regime, dogs have also become a symbol of the “Westernization” that the authorities are seeking to curb.
“There has been no strong regulation around dog ownership,” Dr Ashkan Shemirani, a Tehran-based veterinarian, told the BBC.
“Police forces are arresting people for walking their dogs or even transporting them in their cars, based on their interpretation of what could be seen as symbols of Westernization.”
Prisons for dogs
“They even created a prison for the animals, and we heard a lot of horror stories about this place,” he adds.
“The animals were kept for many days in open areas without proper food and water while the owners of the dogs went through all sorts of legal hassles.”
Iran’s economic difficulties after years of Western sanctions also played a role in the new bill. Authorities banned the import of pet food for more than three years in an attempt to preserve the country’s foreign exchange reserves.
In a landscape dominated by foreign brands, it meant soaring prices, especially after the establishment of an underground market.
“We are very dependent on people smuggling food,” the owner of a veterinary clinic in the town of Mashhad told the BBC.
“Prices are now five times higher than they were just a few months ago.”
The owner of the business claims that locally produced animal feed does not live up to the standard.
“The quality is very poor. The factories use cheap meat or fish, even expired ingredients.”
But the new legislation is not just aimed at dogs. Cats are also on a list of animals – even crocodiles are mentioned.
Iran is known to be the birthplace of Persian cats, one of the most famous breeds in the world.
“Can you believe that now Persian cats are not safe in their homeland?” said a Tehran-based veterinarian to the BBC.
“There is no logic behind this law. Hardliners want to show people their iron hand,” they add.
Dr. Mohebi, president of the Iranian Veterinary Association, calls the proposed law “embarrassing”.
“If Parliament passes the bill, future generations will remember us as the people who banned dogs because they are dogs, and cats because they are cats.”
Pet owners like Masha are sincerely concerned about the future of their pets.
“I dare not ask permission for my ‘son,'” she said.
“What if they reject my request? I can not leave him on the street.”