Warning: this post contains a graphic image.
I’ve always said that working with animals is the best thing I’ve ever done. They are a constant source of positivity and unconditional love. I am not saying that I don’t believe this anymore, but some harsh realities have to be faced. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and it washed over me in a hard way when, in Bahrain, I had to come to terms with the fact that you can’t save them all.
When planning my trip to Bahrain, I was excited. I was going to visit rescues there, and it was going to be awesome. And it was. But…
There’s always a “but”. I hadn’t anticipated how heartbreaking it would be; I hadn’t anticipated how helpless I’d feel; I certainly hadn’t anticipated how different the attitude toward animals would be there to here.
Let me say upfront: every person that I had the privilege of meeting was kind and compassionate, both to humans and animals. I was lucky, in that sense.
To provide some cultural context, Bahrain is an Islamic country. In Islam, cruelty to animals is forbidden. In fact, in addressing animals, the Qur’an says:
“There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but they form communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Quran 6:38)
“Whoever is kind to the creatures of God, is kind to himself.” -The Prophet Muhammad
Reality is not always so kind, though. Dogs are traditionally viewed as unclean in Islam, and many people use this as an excuse to mistreat them. Even those who aren’t intentionally mistreating animals often have a fear of dogs, leading them to – at best – ignore the situation of abuse that is so prevalent in the Middle East and – at worst – throw rocks at strays or mistreat them out of fear.
Even those with good intentions who are keeping dogs as pets often keep them as “outdoor pets” only, letting them live in the yard. In the heat of the Middle East, this is also neglect, or cruelty, in and of itself.
Just a few days ago, a person in Bahrain was sentenced to 2 months in prison for burning a cat alive. And before you ask, no, that wasn’t a typo: 2 months. And Peg Altemueller, an admin on the BSPCA Facebook page commented, “to my knowledge, it is the MOST anyone has ever gotten for animal cruelty in Bahrain. So it is forward movement – be it small.”
Dog fighting, while not legal, still runs rampant in Bahrain, and not much seems to be being done about it. In fact, Facebook group Bahrain Strays used to let members post where they saw strays so that they could sent someone to help them. Now, they’ve banned posting locations, and any information must be sent by PM only, because strays were going missing once posted about. The suspicion is that people were watching the group and were stealing the strays as bait for dog fights.
The existing punishment for the crime is a BD20 fine or six months imprisonment.
However, society vice-president Hana Kanoo says people are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
“The law has been in existence since the 1970s and has recently even been amended, but if it’s not enforced then it’s useless,” she said. – Gulf Daily News; “Call to Stamp Out Dog Fights Horror”
20BD, for the record, is roughly $65CAD.
I spoke with a Bahraini friend I made, who wishes to remain anonymous, about the situation with animal welfare in Bahrain. I was poking around, asking for information about dog fights in Bahrain, and I had linked this article. He sent me a message saying,
“To be honest I was unaware that we had dog fights in Bahrain, but wasn’t surprised at all. Yes, you can try to save them by reporting such fights, but think of who might be running them, and if it will eventually stop because of you, added the amount of trouble you’re getting yourself and those around you into… I get that westerners have a huge soft spot for animals and animal cruelty, and I think it’s quite beautiful; however, wanting to save the dogs in Bahrain is like going to starving African nations and bringing doggy treats and cat treats to their pets only, and leaving the people.
…If you can help, please do. I imagine the dog fights are run by tycoons and are protected by them. That’s how the country runs; the illegal stuff are only run by the rich people. They try to monopolize the businesses and arrest any other individuals who try to start their own. Reading through your article, it seems they’re run in the rich folk areas only means they’re not to be messed with. Besides, how would you take them down? Call the police? Evidence? You’re a foreigner, too, so they’ll try to treat you like an ignorant and tell you it’s not like how it seems.”
On that disheartening note, I took a laser focus to one sentence, and clung to it as hard as I could; “If you can help, please do.”
I began leaving food out for the seven stray dogs by our house. Three of them, to my count, were injured. I’ll catch them, I thought, and bring them to a rescue! How hard could it be? Once they realized that I was the girl with the food, they’d learn to trust me. I bought a leash, and figured it was only a matter of time. I didn’t end up catching any of them. I know they found the food, because it’d be gone hours after I left it, but they wouldn’t come near if I was there. They never learned to associate me with the food. When I tried throwing food – not at them, but near them – so they’d figure out I was giving treats, they’d run away; too used to having other things thrown at them. I maybe could have won them over if I had eleven months instead of eleven days; maybe. By the time I left, I only saw four of them running around regularly. What happened to the other three, I can only imagine and, frankly, I try not to.
I decided to visit the rescues. First, I went to the BSPCA. It’s actually really nice! Surprisingly nicer than Toronto Animal Services or The Toronto Humane Society. Founded by a couple, one half Bahraini and one half British, it’s a typical rescue: all animals in cages, with a couple big fenced in areas at the back, half shaded, for the dogs to be let out to play. The animals are all healthy looking, if not always happy, cooped up and lonely. They have volunteers come in to walk the dogs on weekends. When I asked about the other days of the week, I was told that no, they only got walks on weekends. And only some; they didn’t have enough volunteers or time to walk all of the dogs, and the volunteers were getting fewer and fewer as the summer heat was coming. When I asked about the dog park type areas in the back, I was told that yes, some dogs were allowed out to play, sometimes. Whichever they felt like taking out and had time for. I do not think any of this was malicious, I think it was just a legitimate lack of resources and manpower.
I asked whether they euthanize animals, and he claimed only when medically necessary. I asked what that means, and he simply told me it was up to the vet and he couldn’t say any more. Part of me believes that to be true – they had one adorable dog, Nelson, who had been there since 2013, so animals were obviously not getting put down if they aren’t puppies or aren’t immediately snapped up. On the other hand though, every single animal there was healthy and cute and in perfect shape. That isn’t how they always come, in Bahrain. Many, many strays are missing limbs or eyes or ears, or are scarred or permanently damaged in some other way, and the BSPCA, as far as I saw, didn’t have a single one of those. This leads me to question what they are considering “medically necessary”.
They don’t do background checks or home visits with potential owners – too many dogs, not enough people wanting them, and not enough resources. They trust their gut instincts and the vibe they get from people wanting to adopt, and hope for the best.
One last note on the BSPCA is that they have a great TNVR program. Here in Toronto, we have a TNR program, but there they one-up us with a Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return program for strays. This is incredible, just in general, but especially because the have recently passed a law in Bahrain that police can no longer shoot stray animals. This is obviously a good thing, except it means that the stray population is out of control, more than ever.
The Dogfather’s Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre:
The thing I had most been looking forward to on my trip was my visit to see Tony “The Dogfather”, who runs a rescue. I’d emailed him leading up to my trip, and had plans to look around his centre and talk to him about his experiences. Tony is an English expat who has been in Bahrain for near 30 years now. Eighteen years ago, Tony’s daughter, in Bahrain, got him involved in rescuing animals, and it just snowballed from there. She’s long since left for the States, and Tony is still in Bahrain, with his rescue getting bigger and bigger, with no more funding.
Tony has 450+ animals, including over 200 dogs, 200 cats (“at last count”, says Tony), a donkey, rabbits, birds, and a baboon, who was recently rescued from a zoo where he was being mistreated. He has four employees for all of these animals, and not nearly enough funding, which is 100% donation based.
When I got to Bahrain, I emailed Tony, hoping to set up a time to meet up. I didn’t hear back. I tried calling him, and the call didn’t go through. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, I decided to just show up. After a slightly confusing drive (instead of an address, his site says things like “After 100 metres go over the hump in the road and take the 2nd turning on the right”), I found the place.
Tony opened the gate, and was visibly distracted. I shook his hand, and introduced myself (“I’m Verena. From Canada? I emailed you?”), and handed him the bag of dog food, treats, and dentastix I’d brought. I explained that I’d tried calling and emailing, but I’d gotten no answer. He told me that their power was out because they weren’t able to pay the electric bill, so he didn’t have access to the computer. As a result, the AC was out too, and he was literally in the moment in the process of burying one of his older dogs, who had passed away, in part because of the heat. He asked me to come back Friday morning.
When I showed up Friday morning, it was a beautiful thing. Ten in the morning until noon every Friday Tony has basically an open house. He lets anyone come, hang out with the animals, help if they are able, and adopt if they want. There were, aside from myself, Tony, and his employees, probably between ten to fifteen volunteers. A dog got adopted that day, by a boy who promised it was going to sleep in bed with him, and a little girl was choosing a cat.
Tony’s space is beautiful. Yes, the cages the dogs are in are smaller than ideal, and yes, there are more animals than is probably feasible. But my god is he trying. Tony doesn’t turn away sick or injured dogs. He has vets who will do work for him at cost, and he will take all the dogs that no one else will. He has huge open spaces that the dogs are allowed out to play in. And let me be clear: yes, many of the dogs are emaciated, and yes, many of them are missing limbs, or have sores all over their bodies, but they are so happy. Tails up, tongues lolling. And these dogs, who are in the condition they are in because of evil humans? They still love people, and they still trust people. They still love being pet and getting cookies and kisses.
I met one dog who had his hips broken, by humans, and was found in the back of a truck. Tony and his workers rescued him and were recommended to euthanize him; they were told that he was paralyzed. They kept him. Now, he is still way too skinny, and he is incontinent, so he gets baths twice a day because he pees and poos on himself. But he is walking, and not only that, he let me walk right up to him, pet him, and kiss him on the nose.
One of Tony’s workers, Chula, has been there for thirteen years now, lives on site, and works 16+ hour days. When I asked him if he likes it, he says he loves it, and it is the best job he’s ever had. When I commented on his long hours, he shrugged, and said, “I like animals more than people.” Me too, Chula.
At one point, I was sitting on the ground with Honey, a boxer-mix, sitting on my lap, and Oliver Twist, a 3-legged Heinz 57 cutie (pictured below), leaning against me, head on my thigh. Tony walked right by me, and did a double take; “I thought you were one of the dogs for a minute!”, he laughed. “Sometimes I feel like one,” I replied.
These dogs trust people even though they have been given every reason in the world not to, and they have found a place where that trust is deserved. If that doesn’t break your heart and mend it at the same time, I don’t know what will.
Tony doesn’t leave his centre anymore, except to go to the cold store. He has been arrested three times for getting involved in rescuing mistreated dogs whose owners didn’t necessarily want them rescued. He finds the streets of Bahrain too disheartening, and he knows he will get himself into trouble again if he seems another dog being mistreated at the hands of humans, and he can’t help any animals at all if he’s arrested again.
Tony claims he knows where the dog fights in Bahrain take place, but can’t go himself for the aforementioned reasons. He says he can’t report anything until he gets it on video. Anyone in Bahrain who is willing to get involved, please reach out to him. Someone else told me that the stables in Barbar hold the fights, but I have no evidence on that at all.
I guess that’s about it. I was hoping to have a shinier, happy ending to this story, but I just don’t. It is what it is. I plan to move to Bahrain eventually, because I think I can have much more of an impact there than I do here, and I think I can do more good there than I do here. I think I am needed more there. I will post updates as I get them, and as always, I welcome any feedback, either privately through my contact me page, or in the comments below.
*If you are interested, you can donate to Tony and his centre through PayPal at email@example.com. I can promise you that every dollar is needed and appreciated, and every dollar goes toward the animals.