Even under the best of circumstances, running an animal shelter can sometimes seem like a thankless job. Here in America, dogs are revered and loved in popular culture — and yet thousands linger or die in shelters every year.
In Iran, dogs are not revered at all. Officials in some cities are empowered to shoot stray dogs on sight, and Islam traditionally considers them unclean. Because of that taboo, some in the government are still considering a law that would punish dog owners with 74 lashes if they walk their pet in public.
That kind of environment only makes it more challenging to run a dog shelter, yet since 2004, workers at the Vafa Animal Shelter have done exactly that.
The Associated Press recently published an excellent profile of the shelter and its workers by Nasser Karimi. Located in a rural area outside Tehran, Vafa is the country’s only licensed animal shelter. About 500 dogs call Vafa home, and in an average month, only six get adopted out. In addition to the stigma against pet dogs, Vafa faces the same challenge that shelters in the USA do: Many people who are looking for a pet prefer to have young purebreds, not a stray with unknown lineage. According to manager Ali Sani, “The dogs that are brought here used to be in urban environments and were struggling with problems and needed help.”
Although the climate in Iran is hostile to owning dogs as pets (Islamic law allows them to be kept for work purposes), Vafa has a generally positive relationship with the authorities. The fact that they collect the strays so many see as a nuisance makes some more conservative officials more kindly disposed to supporting the shelter. As for the debate over public dog walking, the shelter has tactfully avoided getting involved.
Vafa has begun to reach out to Westerners to help find new homes for its dogs. United We Rescue is a program that asks travelers to let a Vafa dog accompany them back to the United States or Western Europe, so that one of the shelters there can take charge of finding a forever home.
As you might imagine, that’s a painstakingly slow process; travel between the United States and Iran is at an especially low level right now because of economic sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians as a whole are struggling economically because of the sanctions, which makes it harder for the shelter to solicit the donations that keep the lights on and the dogs fed.
Vafa is doing a hard job, and the current reality is that it’s only going to get harder. If you want to reach out to the group to make donations or to help transport a dog, you can do so through the website.
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