Damascus residents find escape from conflict in their beloved dogs

Special Damascus residents find escape from conflict in their beloved dogs
1 / 2
Remy Al-Khodary with his Siberian husky. (Supplied)
Special Damascus residents find escape from conflict in their beloved dogs
2 / 2
Jamil Esekria with his white Siberian Husky, Bill. (AN photo)
Updated 04 February 2018

Damascus residents find escape from conflict in their beloved dogs

Damascus residents find escape from conflict in their beloved dogs

DAMASCUS: Jamil Esekria cannot imagine life without his Siberian husky.
The 24-year-old graphic design student from Damascus’s Al-Midan neighborhood has raised Bill since he was six weeks old.
“He is like a son to me and I worry about him all the time,” Esekria, told Arab News. “It would have been almost impossible for my family and I to get through this war on an emotional level if not for Bill.”
As Syria became increasingly mired in conflict, pet ownership in the government-held capital, which has been spared the levels of destruction seen in other areas of the country, increased steadily.
Residents say that in the last two years the number of people walking dogs through the streets and in the city’s parks has increased rapidly, despite the economic impact of the seven year war.
While some of the rise could be linked to a global increase in pet ownership — particularly a desire for exclusive dog breeds — owners admit their animals are a coping mechanism for the emotional toll of living in a country decimated by war.
“If not for my dog, Perla, I would have succumbed to depression,” Shahd, a 32-year-old living in Al-Rawda, said.
“The war has crushed most of our dreams, and science has proved that pets can help with depression and anxiety, so why not keep a pet instead of getting involved in gossip and scheming?”
Shahd said her mother tells her that she lacks compassion for spending so much money on Perla, a brown poodle, while some children in Syria do not have enough food. But Shahd says mental health in the country is also a big issue and not properly understood.
In Damascus, its not just any old pets that are increasingly visible — the city’s animal lovers have been largely purchasing exclusive breeds.
Mazen, who breeds and sells Siberian huskies, told Arab News that his puppies are priced at 80,000 Syrian pounds ($170).
“I only breed huskies because there is a higher demand for them here,” he said. “Other dog breeds in demand include poodles and Pomeranians.”
Prices of trained dogs can cost more than double the regular price — between $400 and $1,000. Mazen said these customers are usually specialist breeders and wealthy buyers.
Certain breeds of cat have also become more popular, including Persians and chinchillas. They sell for between $53 to $160, depending on the cat’s health, beauty, age, and how pure its breed is.
The extra spending on animals comes as the average young adult in Damascus makes between 25,000 Syrian pounds and 100,000 Syrian pounds a week in the private sector. Many young adults are financially dependent on their parents.
Mazen said the monthly costs of feeding a dog is between $19 and $128 and the costs soon mount up with vet bills, vaccination, and some owners even paying for professional training, Mazen said. Experienced dog trainers charge around $100 per month.
Vaccines for most pets cost between $17 to $25 per year, said Ahmed, a vet based in Al-MuHajjirin area in Damascus.
He said the trend for pet ownership is as much with middle-class families, as it is with the rich.
Remy Al-Khodary, 17, who also has a Siberian husky, but a black and white one, said that despite the conflict, dog owners are well served in Damascus.
He feeds his dog dry food, boiled rice, boiled chicken, and large bones. “Dog food is available and plentiful across the city,” he said, “at supermarkets and vet clinics.”
“There are vet clinics in most neighborhoods in Damascus, including poorer areas, and vets are well-acquainted with the pets they treat.”
A challenge for pet owners are the strict rules that the city’s authorities have in place, particularly against dogs.
The director of health affairs in Damascus Governorate, Maher Rayya, said in September that keeping dogs in residential areas is prohibited and that they should not be walked in the streets, nor kept inside houses. He threatened that the animals could be confiscated.
This statement angered many pet owners and spurred angry reactions on social media.
Al-Khodary said he was aware of the laws, “but no one abides by them.”
Rula Al-Husseini, an architecture student at a private university in Damascus, recently found a small, beautiful stray kitten at her doorstep. She took her in, cleaned her, took her to the vet, and kept her.
“She makes me happy and keeps me company at home even though I never thought before that I’d want to keep a cat,” Al-Husseini said.
Pet owners and breeders in Damascus have a Facebook community through which they share their experiences, ask questions, sell pets, and request mating partners.
While the pet ownership boom has brought a lot of pleasure to owners at a difficult time, it also highlights the vast disparity between the Syrian rich and poor.
“Some families in this city can barely feed their children; I wonder how those people are feeding their big dogs and spoiled cats!” Nabiha, 67, who lives in Abu Rummaneh, one of Damascus’s wealthy neighborhoods, said.
She said the number of pets, particularly poodles and huskies, had easily double in the last two years.
For Esekria, having a pet has brought huge amounts of joy to his life during the darkest period for his country
“When I come home feeling like the world is falling apart, only seeing Bill run enthusiastically at me makes me smile from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “Whenever Bill hears gunfire or shelling, he runs and hides in my bed, making me laugh instead of worrying and getting stressed.
“I cannot imagine the house without him.”