JEDDAH: Pet therapy is a relatively new concept in Saudi Arabia but the fact that it has been widely embraced and supported suggests that it is something that was badly needed.
DJ Kennels, which was established in Jeddah in 2017, is an animal shelter that provides a home for abandoned pets and even rescued wild animals. The residents of this mini wildlife park include dogs, cats, rabbits, owls, hyenas and even a lion.
For many animal lovers in the city, DJ Kennels offers the perfect chance for some much-needed animal therapy, especially after the closure of other animal sanctuaries such as Al-Anaam Al-Jameela Park and Fayfa.
Pet therapy is just one of the services provided by DJ Kennels. It also handles animal adoptions, a pet hotel, volunteering opportunities and animal rescue services, among others. They also take in pets whose owners can no longer care for them, and train them if required so that they can be put up for adoption.
Mahmoud Azzam, the owner of the kennels, told Arab News that it all began as a hobby.
“I saw a huge demand for services such as animal parks and petting zoos, and this is how this hobby turned into a business,” he said. “At the same time it is considered a community service with a financial return.”
The shelter is a constantly changing environment, he added, “because a large part of the park is for rescued animals such as lions, hyenas and owls, so we do not know what we will find on our doorstep tomorrow.”
He said that the National Center for the Development of Wildlife is the main Saudi governmental organization responsible for animal welfare issues and is doing good work caring for exotic animals.
“That is why we urge people to talk with them first,” he added.
Within this official framework DJ Kennels is determined to provide whatever help it can, and Azzam explained how he happened to end up caring for a lion.
“He was (unfortunately) bought illegally but the owner felt guilty and decided to put him here,” he said. “He contacted us to help the cub. Its health condition was very bad; he couldn’t walk and was eating poorly. We decided to send him to a reserve in Africa but then the pandemic happened and flights were grounded. Luckily flights have now resumed and we are working with the authorities on transport procedures.”
Other unusual residents at the shelter include two owls.
“One of them was caught in the wild and the other one was bought illegally,” said Azzam. “They cannot be released back into the wild because they both have permanent disabilities. So we have tried to create a similar environment for them to live in here.
Azzam’s 10-year-old daughter Jumana said she shares her father’s love of animals, and that it began at the tender age of two.
“I owned a dog at the time,” she said. “We have had horses and camels at DJ Kennels but they were sent to stables. I hope the horses will come back. I also told my dad that it would be nice to have colorful parrots in the park.”
Shahd Ali, a visitor at the shelter, told Arab News that she goes there regularly with her siblings “because they love interacting with animals and I think it is difficult to find a place that provides these services in Jeddah. I hope there is more diversity of animals and more organizations.”
Azzam said that when he decided to open the refuge up to visitors, he was mindful that studies have shown that interacting with animals can have beneficial effects on many people, especially those with special needs, including autism.
“A child with autism attracts the animal’s attention,” he explained. “Especially dogs, because dogs have the advantage that they know how to deal with autistic patients.”
(AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
Azzam added that patients should check first with their care providers whether it is safe for them to interact with animals but more often than not, he said, specialists recommend a visit as a form of therapy that can help people with autism. The service is free for people with special needs.
Though the shelter echoes to the sound of the delighted squealing of children, the happy yapping of dogs and the contented purring of cats, the stories of the animals cared for by DJ Kennels are often tinged with sadness.
Some people simply abandon their pets, said Azzam. The shelter takes them in and, if necessary, trains them to socialize and trust humans again so that they can be put up for adoption and find a new forever home. Because the pets have already been through one trauma when they were abandoned, DJ Kennels carefully assesses and thoroughly vets potential adopters before agreeing to hand over an animal.
“We provide full-course dog-training services, and as for adopting dogs, we give the dogs social classes to make sure they are harmless to its new owner,” said Azzam. “We only give the animal to a person who is capable of owning a dog after an analysis of the adopter’s living conditions.”
Owning an animal shelter such as DJ Kennels might seem like a great job from the outside, but it requires a lot of time and effort from the owners and staff to keep it running. In addition, such shelters are not lucrative businesses, and the income is not enough to cover veterinary bills, Azzam said, but he hopes that might change in the future.
He also called on volunteers to join his team, given that one of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 is to spread awareness of volunteering and increase the number of volunteers in the country to 1 million by 2030.
“Many young people in the community have knowledge, time and effort to give, especially young people who are full of energy, and we’re not fully benefiting from them,” said Azzam.
Though the traditional view among many in the region was that ownership of dogs is prohibited because they some religious texts describe them as unclean, attitudes are slowly changing.
“I believe in different opinions and I advise people who think that dogs are unclean to look at different approved religious and legal opinions,” Azzam said. “People are enemies to what they don’t know. With more shelters and businesses such as ours, people have begun to learn about animals and accept them more.”