The dogs emerge from what feels like nowhere. All of a sudden, there are dozens of them around Karim Hussein, a 60-year-old Basra local. At first it looks as though the stray dogs are about to attack Hussein, who has just arrived on his bicycle. After all, Basra has a stray dog problem – the provincial authorities recently announced that they were dedicating IQD50 million (around US$41,000) and bringing in poison to getting rid of the strays. But no, the dogs are here because Hussein collects bones and leftover scraps from local markets and butcheries and he feeds the animals every day. The dogs know him and gather around. Some seem to be tame and rub their heads against his legs. Some bark a greeting.
Hussein lives in the Qibla neighbourhood, in the west of Basra and works as a blacksmith in the boat building and maritime construction sector. He’s been feeding the stray dogs here, on his way to work and back, for several years now.
Stray dogs are subjected to horrible abuse and cruelty because of how hostile people are towards them. Killing dogs with poison is inhumane.
“Almost eight years ago I started to collect food in the early hours of the morning at the local farmers’ markets in Basra,” he explains. “I am given the refuse from the butcheries and I also take any dead chicken parts. I collect everything in a box and then carry it on my bicycle. I give it to the stray dogs on my way to work, stopping in each spot where I know they’re living.”
Hussein divides everything into three batches, stopping off by the different canine communities three times a day – on his way to work, during his lunch break and then again on his way home. Even so, he never has enough food for all the strays; cats also come out to scavenge what they can from his donations.
He started off just helping one group of dogs that lived near his home - he says he felt sorry for them - but has since tried to feed other packs further away too. “I just felt like I wanted to help all of the stray dogs so that is why I started trying to collect more food for them,” he explains.
In Iraqi society, there is often an anti-dog sentiment – partially this is because Muslims are only supposed to have dogs in their homes if they are performing a service. That is, dogs can be used for herding sheep or as guard dogs, and so on, but it is less common (although in some parts of Iraq, increasingly popular) to keep a dog as a pet.
It is for this reason that Hussein doesn’t have a dog at home – his family is opposed to the idea. Nonetheless Hussein believes that animals have rights too and that these should be respected. At first, his family were opposed to his feeding the strays and not least because of the way that Hussein smelled when he came home. But now they are used to it and no longer mind.
In Baghdad, it is becoming more acceptable to keep a dog as a pet.
“I’ve never had any problems with the dogs though and I’ve never been attacked,” Hussein notes. “On the contrary actually – they are often waiting for me and they greet me in a friendly way.”
Obviously, not everybody in Basra feels this way. Another local, Radi Muheisen, who lives in the Jumhuriyah neighbourhood, believes that the steady increase in the number of stray dogs and rodents in Basra presents a life-threatening danger. “They should be exterminated,” he argues. “They attack our children and bother us. And in recent years there have been cases of rabies. The dogs and rats seem to be breeding faster than ever.”
“A meeting was held at the provincial council to discuss the issue of the stray dogs,” a recent press statement from deputy governor, Mohammed al-Tamimi, announced. “The meeting included the various departments for the environment, oil companies and other municipal services, like water and sewage.”
The deputy-governor also said that they were awaiting shipments of poison which would be used to eradicate the stray dogs, with a campaign directed by local hospitals, starting in central Basra and eventually moving to outer suburbs and districts.
Not everyone wants this. “Iraqi society lacks any love for animals,” says Alia al-Ali, an animal rights activist in Basra who, together with her friends and colleagues, tries to shelter strays of all kinds and find homes for new-born puppies and kittens. “Stray dogs are subjected to horrible abuse and cruelty because of how hostile people are towards them. Horses, donkeys and cats are also neglected. What should be happening is that veterinary agencies should be collecting up the strays and castrating them. Killing dogs with poison is inhumane,” she says.
Al-Ali believes that Iraq needs more compassionate examples like Hussein’s.
As for Hussein himself, he stopped listening to comments, whether negative or positive, a long time ago. He says he is feeding the dogs because his conscience tells him too and he doesn’t care if other Iraqis watch him with a horrified look on their faces. Instead he tries to feed the strays in ways that don’t garner him too much attention. And then, after he has finished dishing out the dogs’ dinner, he gets back on his bike and rides off. The dogs sit where he left them, many of them watching him ride away, as if to ask where their next meal is coming from.