Once banned as 'unclean' – now unleashed

'I wouldn't dream of letting Zhopo go. He's part of the family.' – Iranian man

The days of terror, late-night abductions and streetside executions are over now. And Kayvan Azad no longer has to keep his best friend in hiding.

"Arf," says Zhopo, Azad's eight-year-old brownish-white terrier-poodle mix, officially banned as unclean as pigs and pork under Islamic rulings.

Once upon a time, semi-official religious authorities called basijis shot dogs dead on the street. Many "disappeared" like political dissidents. In the days following the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah, some zealots wanted to execute all of the horses in the royal stable. Until about five years ago, you couldn't really have a pet in the Iran without raising the ire of authorities.

But the bad days are over now, and despite periodic hassles, spaniels and poodles and other breeds have made a comeback on the streets of Tehran. "In the last four years, it's definitely gotten better," says Kayvan, an artist who says religious authorities once kicked Zhopo while his sister took the dog for a walk.

"It's hard keeping a dog here," he says. "But I wouldn't dream of letting Zhopo go. He's part of the family."

Last year in the city of Ghazvin, the first-ever dog show in the Islamic Republic of Iran was held. And in about three weeks a veterinary clinic is sponsoring the first postrevolutionary pet show in Tehran.

There are no statistics on the number of pets in Iran. But the number of veterinary clinics in Tehran has grown from a handful five years ago to about 35 now. Some observers link the growing popularity of pets to rapid urbanization. "As the society has grown larger and more intimidating, people have grown scared of each other," says Dr. Hooman Molokpoor, a leading veterinarian, who now has a twice-monthly TV show about keeping birds and tropical fish. He said he's still not supposed to speak about dogs and cats.

There is nothing negative about dogs in the Koran. Most of the restrictions against pets stem from Shia religious rulings accumulated over the decades. Dogs are officially najess, the highest level of dirtiness under Shia doctrine.

Molokpoor and colleagues hastened pet tolerance about four years ago when they asked Ayatollah Fazeli Lankarani to make a religious ruling on whether it was acceptable to keep a dog in the house to warn of strangers approaching. He said it was all right, and Molokpoor publicized the ruling in a veterinary publication.

Just a couple months ago, an official-looking notice appeared in papers warning people to keep dogs and monkeys out of public spaces. To keep authorities at bay, the Tehran pet show will officially be a pet-keeping contest, where judges rate owners for their skills rather than pets for their beauty.

Molokpoor, a handsome, philosophical 30-something, says the acceptance of pets – just like the limited but vibrant democracy and pluralism taking hold in Iran – is an unstoppable phenomenon being driven from below.

"When people have greater freedom, they have a greater appreciation for life and animals," he says.

The growing appreciation for animals and pets, he said, isn't limited to wealthy Iranians who live in the chic sections of Tehran. Molokpoor recalls one night when a taxi driver called at 11 p.m. and shortly thereafter carried in a badly injured dog he had struck on the road. It was a harrowing night for Molokpoor, who saved the dog's life only through extensive surgery.

His eyes red from lack of sleep, Molokpoor took a look at the man, a bearded working-class fellow obviously religious and from the southern, more traditional part of the city. "This dog is unclean, yet you carried it in your arms and saved his life," he said to the man. "Most people would have left it to die. Why didn't you?"

The cabdriver, who had waited all night for the operation to finish and ended up offering to pay for the operation, didn't pause.

"Yes, it may be unclean," he told the veterinarian. "But it's still one of God's creatures."

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