One of the few positive things to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the surge in animal adoption from shelters as people looked to pets to help alleviate fear, anxiety and loneliness. This is no surprise, as the benefits of pet ownership are well-documented. According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, as well as providing companionship, pets help reduce depression and stress. Caring for a pet also makes you think beyond yourself, and forces you to get out and about (dogs need to be walked, for example), thus avoiding the danger that too much isolation poses to mental well-being.
Being confined to home during lockdown also gave many the ideal opportunity to lavish time and effort on a new pet. Even though some restrictions have been lifted, travel remains more difficult and more expensive so people are taking far fewer trips or none. And of course, there is still the residual fear of contracting the virus as we await widespread vaccination.
Rescue animals also got a profile boost when it emerged that President-elect Joe Biden’s rescue dog, a German shepherd named Major, would be moving to the White House too. (However, Major’s claim to be the first rescue animal to live in the presidential residence is disputed by both Yuki, a mixed breed pup found abandoned in 1966 and given to President Lyndon B Johnson, and by Socks, the Clintons’ rescue cat.)
In the UAE, Noura Al Kaabi, the minister of culture and youth, is often seen at her office with her rescue cat, who is now quite the celebrity at the ministry and is thoroughly spoiled by staff and visitors.
All very heartwarming, but what happens when life returns to pre-pandemic normality? Will all those well-intentioned people who took on a pet during lockdown discover that, now that they are back in their workplaces, they can spare neither the time nor the effort to look after it? And what about those now living on half- salaries, or no salaries, unable to afford pet food and vets’ bills?
After the initial euphoria of animal shelters gradually emptying as more people decided to adopt or foster a pet, the great fear of animal welfare organizations now is of an increase in the numbers of abandoned animals.
Some of the worst pet-dumpers are expats who happily take on a pet while living abroad but when the time comes for them to leave, suddenly decide it’s not worth the expense, paperwork and inconvenience involved to relocate Kitty or Fido as well. Some even abandon pets rather than pay for a few weeks’ boarding while they are away on their summer holiday.
Those who work at animal shelters are all too accustomed to the callousness of people who ditch their pets. They have heard all the excuses: too time-consuming, too draining on the finances, too messy, not cute enough now that they’ve grown out of the puppy/kitten stage. Some owners have no shame in simply stating that they have “lost interest,” as if an animal were a game they had tired of playing. The early days of the pandemic also saw a great deal of misinformation about pets being carriers of the virus. (Be assured, once and for all: they are not.)
It all comes down to whether you regard a pet as “someone” – a sentient creature, a part of your family who is capable of feeling pain and distress – or a “something” – a toy, accessory or commodity to be bought and sold or discarded or even destroyed when you have tired of it.
Sadly, it is the latter view that prevails in too many parts of the world and certainly in the Middle East.
Under new anti-cruelty laws introduced two years ago in the UAE, it is illegal to abandon an animal or to mistreat or neglect it. Enforcing the law is another matter, however, especially if there are no witnesses or the culprit has already left the country.
How do we go about changing the mindset that regards animals as objects to be used or abused at will? Certainly, it has to begin in childhood, both at home and in schools, and a very good place to start is with the teachings of Islam, which are very clear.
Every Muslim grows up hearing the story of the woman who went to Hell because of a cat “which she neither fed nor let it eat,” while a man who gave water to a stray dog was admitted to Heaven. Showing kindness and compassion to all living creatures is not only right, therefore, but it could actually determine where you spend the afterlife.
The sixth surah of the Quran (entitled Al Anaam, “The Cattle”) states: “And there is no creature on [or within] the Earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.”
The instruction really could not be clearer. All are God’s creatures and must be accorded equal respect and care. Your pets belong to a community, too – yours.
Rym Tina Ghazal, currently based in Saudi Arabia, is editor-in-chief of Ithraeyat Magazine, an art and culture publication.