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DUBAI: Animal welfare issues in Saudi Arabia have come to the fore again after a video of a group of young men appearing to torture a dog by lighting a firecracker in its rectum went viral on social media, prompting calls to punish offenders.
A hashtag, which translates from the original Arabic as ‘punish the animal burner’, has been trending on social media platforms for several days, with users calling for tougher enforcement of rules banning cruelty to animals .
Saudi Arabia has strong animal protection laws, having signed the Gulf Cooperation Council Humane Treatment of Animals Act in 2013.
However, according to animal welfare advocates who spoke to Arab News, implementation of the laws has yet to catch up with intent.
The Kingdom takes the abuse and mistreatment of animals very seriously. Under Saudi law, the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture can impose a fine of SR50,000 ($13,300) for a first offence, which doubles for a second offence.
The third and fourth cases of abuse incur fines of SR200,000 and SR400,000 respectively. In the most serious cases, violators can lose their business license or even face jail time.
The ministry “has provided, through its website, a means to report any abuse or torture, and such reports are treated seriously,” lawyer Waleed bin Nayef told Arab News in October 2021, adding that a robust system animal welfare was enshrined in the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan.
The law provides extensive protections for animals, including sections requiring that pets and livestock have appropriate facilities where they are handled by a sufficient number of qualified personnel with the necessary capacity, knowledge and professional skills. in terms of animal welfare.
It also obliges animal caretakers to feed them in sufficient quantities, according to their species and their age, to keep them in good health.
Governments around the world have recognized the importance of protecting animals, in part because animal abuse often occurs alongside other forms of interpersonal violence toward humans and property.
In the United States, data collected by the FBI supports the idea that tackling animal cruelty can help reduce other crimes such as aggravated assault and vandalism.
“Some studies indicate that animal cruelty is a precursor to greater crime,” Nelson Ferry, who works in the FBI’s Criminal Statistics Management Unit, said in a statement highlighting the bureau’s work. in this domain.
But neglect and cruelty to animals is considered common in the Kingdom, and although the law is sometimes enforced, most abuses – even those documented – go unpunished, according to Saudi animal welfare advocates.
The 2021 Animal Rights Index, created by San Francisco-based data firm The Swiftest, ranked Saudi Arabia 50th out of 67 countries. That year, only 29 animal welfare law violators were fined.
“That’s what you get when you have a government agency that acts as the legislative branch that writes the animal welfare laws and at the same time acts as the police and enforces the law. More acts as as the judge who determines the sentence and is the same agency which is the beneficiary of payment for these violations,” Princess Moudhy bint Fahd Al-Saud, head of the Saudi Animal Welfare Society, told Arab News as part of the reports of animal abuse.
“Vision 2030 will include the full implementation of animal rights if we get the direct attention of our Blessed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, just as he did to reform other government agencies and steer them towards delivering of social services in order to blend in with the Vision. . We have the necessary laws. We just have to implement them.”
Animal abuse and neglect is said to be particularly common in Souq Al-Hammam, south of Riyadh.
Animal lovers regularly share gruesome videos allegedly showing kittens, puppies and rabbits sold in the souk crammed into small metal cages in the scorching heat with no food or water.
The market has been operating for over 20 years despite repeated calls for it to be closed. Animal lovers say some stores even sell wild animals such as desert foxes, monkeys and other exotic species, in defiance of Saudi laws banning the practice.
“Despite violating the law passed by the Kingdom and having breached many others in terms of animal welfare in general, Souq Al-Hammam is still up and running,” said Abdullah Al-Senani. , member of the Saudi animal protection NGO Rahmah. says Arab News.
He said Saudi authorities usually intervene when videos of alleged abuse in the souk are posted on social media, but “no action has been taken to shut down pet shops there.”
Fellow animal welfare advocate Faisal Chalabi describes the situation in the market as “horrible for animals and for any animal lover”. He told Arab News: “I dread going to this area, but I had to do it many times.”
Chalabi said he sent several reports to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture regarding allegations of abuse, but says he never received a response.
“I recently sent the footage to a friend who has gathered enough evidence to press charges against all these inhumane offenders and hopefully penalize and ban the sale of animals in such conditions and in the souk,” said he added.
Animal Paws, another Saudi NGO that has also collected images and photographic evidence of alleged abuse in the souk, recently released disturbing images of dying animals abandoned by traders.
Despite signs of growing public awareness, animal shelters are still scarce in Saudi Arabia, forcing those who want to help to house large numbers of rescued animals in their homes.
Chalabi said he currently keeps more than 50 cats and dogs in his home. “I think a step has been taken in the right direction, but there is still a lot to do in terms of animal rights,” he added.
“After all, in Islam and through the teachings of the Prophet, we have been commanded to show compassion, empathy and mercy.”
Social media has been both a blessing and a curse when it comes to animal welfare in Saudi Arabia.
While these platforms have made it easy for Saudis to report abuse, they have also been used by some people to share videos of animal exploitation for entertainment.
“On TikTok in particular, some Saudi users have exploited animals for use and abuse to get likes,” an animal handler, who declined to be named, told Arab News. “There is a lack of education.
Social media can also play a role in complicity in the illicit trafficking of wildlife and exotic animals. “Some breeds are brought in from abroad and we end up seeing them on the streets or possibly being sold in the souk,” the Saudi animal handler said.
Overall, however, social media has become a useful weapon to help raise awareness of animal cruelty.
“Many people in the community are starting to get active for animal welfare,” the Saudi said. “I see more people adopting. Even my uncle, who didn’t allow pets, fed strays in his neighborhood. The community helped care for and house the animals.
To achieve its vision of a humane society, say Saudi NGOs, animal protection should be a priority for the government.
“Saudi Arabia is moving towards a modern and cultured society, and animal welfare should be at the top of the list,” the animal carer told Arab News, summarizing his thoughts on the matter.
“If you’re not nice to the weakest creature, you’re just not nice.”