JEDDAH: Saudi teenager Aram Alrayes did not expect her new Twitter account to attract hundreds of followers after she tweeted about animal exploitation in the Kingdom.
But the animal rights activist had noticed a lack of awareness in Saudi society and wanted it to end.
“There are people out there who want wild animals as pets and to use them in the entertainment industry. They use them for their own good, regardless of the animal’s well-being,” she told Arab News.
She singled out platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, where people can be seen defying Saudi laws on animal welfare.
“Social media influencers who use wild animals as pets and share this with the world are normalizing the idea that wild animals can be pets and live in houses, and that is so wrong.”
Although the government has banned illegal practices — including hunting and keeping wild animals as pets — they have yet to stop.
There is a trend of raising and breeding wild animals in captivity — even in private homes — with no thought for the ethical consequences.
Alrayes said money was the main reason why breeding wild animals had become a trend. Lack of punishment was another. She also pointed the finger at people who wanted to pet such creatures, for fueling demand.
“It is sadly becoming a trend because there is a demand for it. People are being fooled with the videos they see on social media of animals playing and they seem happy so they (people) think it is OK. But they do not know how these wild animals ended up living in houses. Most of these animals are kidnapped at a very young age and they get drugged.”
She said things would change once people learned more about how unethical and illegal the industry was and that such a scenario motivated her to keep campaigning against animal cruelty and unethical practices.
Last July, the Kingdom banned practices deemed harmful to animals, including tail docking, ear cropping, declawing of all animals, debarking, dehorning, and chemical castration.
Saudi Arabia also prohibits practices such as coloring and dyeing animals, injecting human cosmetics into animals, especially camels, and giving animals stimulant drugs for growth or for when participating in races.
Lawyer Dimah Talal Al-Sharif said that the Saudi Wildlife Authority was responsible for exotic animal licenses. “The law against trafficking in endangered species and their products has clearly banned and prevented the trade in any of these animals without any approval from the above mentioned authority,” she said. “Moreover, this law also refers to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
“Any violator of this law shall be punished with a fine of not more than SR10,000 ($2,667). In case of repeated violation, the fine shall be doubled.”
The director of the licensing department at the Saudi Wildlife Authority, Bandar Al-Faleh, said there were specific measures in place for certain animals such as big cats and wolves. “There is no license to own predators,” he said. “There is a royal decree that prohibits the importation of these animals, for personal use or commercial purposes. We do not issue licenses to import these animals to the Kingdom. Owning a predator is illegal,” he said.
He said it was a violation to own predators without any kind of permit. “These people who own and raise these animals are violating the law. They either entered the Kingdom illegally or have been bred illegally. When the authority receives any information or such topics arise on social media about owning predators illegally, we reach out to security authorities from the Interior Ministry about such cases, and take action to protect these animals and hand them in to the Saudi Wildlife Authority and take legal action against the violator.”
The royal decree prohibits the import of predators only, not exotic animals, he explained. “Exotic animals can be imported with permits.”
Alrayes’ tweets on animal exploitation drew attention and interaction. But she noticed that people did not know the difference between wild animals and domestic animals. Nor did many understand why it was acceptable to have a cat at home but not a lion. She said this ignorance was her motivation to be more active and think of bigger plans for her activism’s future.
She has devoted her Twitter account to educating people about animal rights, citing Gandhi who said that the “greatness of a nation and its moral progress” could be judged by the way its animals are treated.
She learned to care for animals from her mother, who used to help stray cats. This personal encounter taught her to love animals and show respect to them. “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, so animal rights and human rights go hand and hand. All sentient beings matter,” said the 18 year old.
She is keen to collaborate with authorities for a more professional, organized, and united effort. “If animal rights activists collaborate with authorities to spread awareness people will accept the message and think about it in a more serious way. It will give us credibility.”
Mansour Al-Khunaizan, the secretary-general of the Saudi Humane Society, said social media activism was proof that young Saudis understood the importance of animal welfare.
“I don’t find this activism surprising,” he told Arab News. “There is a huge group of Saudis on social media platforms who are creating a social movement to shelter and care for animals as humanitarian and moral work.”
He said Muslims should take the lead in such activities because caring for animals was one of the deeds encouraged by Islamic teachings.
There had been many activities in recent years to educate children about animal rights and well-being and the proper way to handle them, he added. “These are the true models of an animal-friendly society, which sees them as one of the components of the environment around us.”
The Saudi Humane Society, headed by Prince Khalid bin Alwaleed bin Talal, works with activists from across the Kingdom and welcomes all volunteer teams under its umbrella.
The prince strived to support all teams and initiatives from around the country, Al-Khunaizan said, and to make the society play an important role in ensuring the continuity of these initiatives by giving them an institutional framework. “The door is open to anyone who wishes to volunteer or join,” he said.
The Saudi Humane Society was a community partner that coordinated with government agencies and filled a “huge gap” because there was no specialist animal welfare authority, he said.
Authorities had previously announced that importing predators for commercial purposes or personal use was strictly prohibited, he said, in accordance with a royal decree stipulating that government agencies were the only authorized institutions to import wild animals.
He added that the society sought to monitor violations of the law in coordination with state authorities.