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Pet dogs gain acceptance as Iran relaxes taboo

At a public park here, Iran's dogs finally had their day.

The Islamic revolution in 1979 forced a rigid new lifestyle on Iranians. Government based on the Koran meant no alcoholic beverages, modest coverings for women and a new taboo about owning pet dogs. Dog owners were hassled and sometimes faced fines for walking their pets in public.

But last week, Iran held the first Festival of Domesticated Animals, a pet show where dog lovers were allowed to show their pets publicly without fear for the first time since the revolution.

"We usually don't take our dog to places where she can be seen by other people," said 29-year-old Hale, cuddling her mixed terrier, Nabat (which means "sugar candy" in Farsi), at the animal festival. "We often feel that if we take her somewhere public, the police will bother us."

According to Islamic teachings, including writings by the spiritual leader of the revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dogs are considered "impure," although the use of dogs for purposes such as guarding property or personal protection is allowed.

Sayyed Javid Aledavoud, president of the Iran Society for the Protection and Cure of Animals, said dog owners over the years have encountered an array of problems when walking their pets outdoors, even though the taboo was never formally written into law.

"Some authorities act on their own accord," he said. "They sometimes detain animals and take the owners to court to be fined. They have impounded cars."

Since there is no law governing domesticated pets and their owners, local authorities can choose to crack down on dogs at their discretion.

"So it's possible that one day one person says you (the dogs) are free; tomorrow another person says, "No, you're not free,' " Aledavoud said.

But the fact that the government sanctioned a pet show, held at Tehran's Darabad Park on Sept. 10, has given long-suffering dog owners hopes that the times are gradually changing.

Many say they are hassled less than they used to be for walking their dogs. And the image of canines has been helped by the effectiveness of dogs used to sniff out illegal drugs and search-and-rescue dogs deployed after an earthquake killed and injured tens of thousands of people last December in the southeastern city of Bam.

"People are becoming more familiar with dogs and little by little understand how they must treat dogs," said Amir Rahbari, 31, whose Great Dane named DJ has gained fame from acting as a guard dog in four movies and a television series. "I am happy that a festival such as this is happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's a good step. We have very good dogs in Iran, but no one sees them."

In an effort to create rules dog owners can live by, Aledavoud's organization has sent a draft bill to the country's parliament to create a law governing domesticated pets. The law would outline regulations for keeping animals at home and transporting them outside. Aledavoud says the parliament has not yet discussed the proposal.

In another hopeful sign for dog lovers, the country's first 24-hour private pet hospital recently opened, something that would have been unlikely a few years ago.

"It was very hard to get (government) permission," said Dr. Payam Mohebi, the owner. "I put a lot of pressure on them. But now they've given me permission, it shows a changing of culture. They finally agreed that animals also exist."

Still, Iranians' gradual acceptance of dogs can be hard to spot at times.

While some Iranians, especially children, tend to cuddle cute dogs they see in the park, others prefer to keep their distance and visibly frown when they see dog owners puckering up for a wet smooch from their puppies.

And even though the Tehran Pet Hospital is doing good business these days, Mohebi realizes that a few steps forward come with a few steps back.

A couple months ago, he spent over $1,000 to put up large advertisements around Tehran displaying pictures of dogs and cats, only to find the signs taken down and torn up a few days later.