Social Media in the Struggle for Animal Rights in Iran

Raz Zimmt examines Iranian social attitudes towards animal rights as seen in the recent uproar on social media over the killing of stray dogs.

The circulation of a video documenting the killing of stray dogs in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz stirred a public storm in recent weeks, and led to an unprecedented mobilization by activists for animal rights in the Islamic Republic. The video shows dogs being killed by lethal injection while the corpses of many other dead dogs lie by the side of the road.[1] Animal rights activists claim that contractors employed by the industrial park in Shiraz used acid to kill the dogs and were paid per dog killed. Following complaints by many citizens, a senior municipal official in Shiraz announced that the city would launch an investigation of the events.[2]

Thousands of social network (SNS) users responded angrily to the events in Shiraz, and expressed shock at the distressing video. They demanded that those responsible for killing the dogs be punished and even wished for their deaths, claiming that their actions were not only inhumane but also un-Islamic. They created a hashtag “dog killing” that was used, inter alia, for reports on protests organized following the events. Animal rights activists also launched a Facebook page “We demand punishment of those responsible for killing dogs in Shiraz,” that accumulated several thousand likes.[3] The protests that began on SNS quickly spread to the streets, and members of animal welfare organizations held several demonstrations in major cities across Iran to protest the killing of the dogs. Several hundred activists gathered in Shiraz to demand that the people responsible be identified and brought to trial. They stressed that if stray dogs must be killed, it should be done under veterinary supervision, and in a manner that does not cause pain. They also called for establishing a shelter for stray dogs.[4]

In light of the strident public response, Iranian authorities also entered the fray. The Director General of the Ministry of Environment in Fars province said that the video had been handed over to the judiciary, and a formal complaint has been filed on the matter.[5] The Vice President and head of an environmental organization, Masoumeh Ebtekar, joined a protest in Tehran. She thanked the demonstrators and declared that animal abuse is unacceptable under any circumstance. She noted that Iranian legislation concerning animal abuse is inadequate and promised to address the issue personally.[6] The discourse surrounding the abuse of stray dogs also reached news sites, which condemned the killing of the dogs and stressed that Islam rejects abuse of animals and requires human beings to treat all creatures as they deserve. An article published on the website Farda drew from Islamic law, stating that even animals have feelings and that humans must ensure their needs and rights, and avoid causing them unnecessary suffering and cruelty.[7] Alongside condemnations of the incident in Shiraz, some media outlets expressed reservations about the reactions of some animal welfare activists, describing them as exaggerated. For example, the site Tabnak referred dismissively to the protesters who used slogans such as: “I am also dog” and “Don’t kill me,” claiming that people should not be compared to dogs. The site also criticized the authorities who joined the protest instead of formulating ways to prevent recurrences of similar incidents in the future, and wondered why no similar protest arose following other serious incidents of damage to the environment, such as air pollution or destruction of the Khuzestan forests and swamps.[8]

The outrage that erupted following the killing of dogs in Shiraz reflects a recent change in how Iranian society relates to animals. This change is evident in the recent attitudes towards raising pets. Owning dogs, which is forbidden by Shi‘ite law because they are unclean (“najis”), was long considered an expression of harmful Western influence. Since the Islamic Revolution, it is been considered problematic by the authorities. In 2010, a high-ranking conservative cleric, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, issued a ruling (“fatwa”) forbidding the keeping of dogs as pets. In response to a query asked in the context of increasing pet ownership in large cities, he ruled that Islam considers dogs unclean and called raising them a “blind imitation” of the West, where some people “love their dogs more than their wives and children.”[9] In light of the growing number of dog owners, internal security forces have also intensified their enforcement of laws against dogs and their ownership. In 2014, some conservative members of the Majlis proposed imprisonment, fines, and 74 lashes as punishment for walking a dog on a public street.[10]

Simultaneously, there has been increasing public awareness of animal rights, and activists have initiated several actions using SNS. In 2009, several Iranian bloggers joined the struggle against animal abuse. It began at the initiative of blogger Mino Zabari, who demanded that the head of the broadcast authority at the time, Ezzatollah Zarghami, stop broadcasting television programs that include cruelty to animals, and instead produce programs that educate the public by showing kindness to animals and nature.[11] Another blogger protested the killing of stray dogs in Tehran and shared his personal experience – the authorities shot and killed a dog and six puppies he was caring for. He wondered how it might be possible to find a more efficient solution to the problem of stray dogs, possibly by establishing shelters for them, which would also provide several thousand new jobs. Alternately, it would be possible to limit breeding rather than shedding blood.[12]

In the last year, Facebook has become the principal PR tool used by animal welfare activists. In March 2015, a video showing a dog being abused to death by being dragged behind a moving car was shared on the web and received angry responses from users. Animal welfare activists identified the owner of the car in the video, and filed a complaint against him with the authorities.[13] Animal rights activists also launched a Facebook page dedicated to the struggle against animal abuse, including the killing of stray dogs, keeping animals in inappropriate conditions, and hunting wild animals.[14] The struggle for animal rights has joined other civil society campaigns being conducted on SNS, including those for environmental issues that Beehive has covered in the past. Increased use of SNS to promote a wide variety of civil goals reflects a growing awareness and willingness of Iranian citizens to join these campaigns, which transcend the virtual and move into the streets.