For locals protecting their livestock in the land around the eastern Iraqi city of Kut, wolves are animals to be feared. Growing as long as two meters and standing as tall as a meter high, the Arabian wolf can be a frightening prospect. Various species of wolves roam here in packs and can run as fast as 40 kilometres an hour when they're sprinting. It's no wonder Iraqi children make up scary stories about them.
One local man here doesn't feel that way though. Arkan Hurr Shiyaa, who lives in the Jussan area, around 90 kilometres east of Kut city, loves wolves; the 50-year-old has been breeding them for over two decades now and visitors often come to his place to see the wolves up close. Shiyaa considers himself an amateur breeder only. His real job? Somewhat ironically, he's a shepherd.
Niqash: What got you interested in breeding wolves?
Arkan Hurr Shiyaa: I live in a village located in the middle of a vast desert and there are a lot of different types of animals out there. Because I'm a shepherd, I used to see them almost every day. I got used to dealing with different kinds of animals and any fear or anxiety I had eventually disappeared.
As for wolves, they have a special place in my heart. I love them - which is why I became interested in breeding them about 30 years ago. The presence of a wolf in a house protects the household from evil spirits and keeps it safe from thieves. Additionally wolves are so loyal to humans. Compared to other wild animals - like jackals or porcupines - they can easily be tamed.
Niqash: But how did you get started with the breeding?
Shiyaa: The first time, I raised nine wolf puppies at the same time. They were four months old but it was really tough because they were not friendly. I still remember catching them. I had been observing a she wolf and her puppies. She would breastfeed them and then go out hunting. So I waited until she went out into the desert and then, with the help of some friends, I caught the puppies. That's how it started. It is a hobby like any other hobby. In my time, I have killed more than 30 wolves and I've raised and bred hundreds of them. It's a hobby that takes some courage.
Niqash: It is still fairly unusual to keep dogs as pets in the Middle East – after all, in Islam you're only supposed to keep a dog if it has a job in your household. And most of the time wolves are seen as predators of domestic animals and pests here. How have your family and neighbours reacted to your hobby?
Shiyaa: Everyone is happy. My yard is like a zoo. Some families have even come here to take pictures of the different species of wolves I have. All the animals I have are kept healthy and I feed them well. It gives me a lot of happiness to do this.
Niqash: Is it expensive? After all, all the food must cost a lot.
Shiyaa: I provide food for the wolves by hunting rabbits every day while I take care of my sheep. It is not difficult for me, it only costs me a box of bullets for IQD18,000 (around US$15) and that box can last for up to 12 days.
NIQASH: Where do you keep the wolves?
Shiyaa: I have a special area for them in my house that has electricity and also fans. At night I keep the young wolves on a leash until they are more tame. I only set them free in the house once they recognise my family.
NIQASH: You obviously know a lot about wolves now.
Shiyaa: Yes, I have discovered that the male wolf is very loyal to its female, and marries once in a lifetime. The female wolf gives birth to between three and nine puppies and she feeds them until they are two months old. Wolves are loyal and fearless animals and some say my relationship with them is a little strange. But when I talk to them I feel we have an affinity. I find a loyalty and resolve in wolves that I do not often find in human beings.