BEIRUT: A dog’s life in Beirut has certainly gotten better in the past few years but it is still far from a walk in the park according to numerous pet owners, veterinarians, and animal care providers interviewed by The Daily Star.
The difficulties of taking care of a dog in the city are numerous and many echo the typical human complaints that make daily life in Beirut so stressful. Public awareness of animal mistreatment and proper standards of pet care continue to rise, yet the fear of dogs continues to persist even as they become an increasingly common sight on the streets of Beirut.
Marwa Younes, the companion animals coordinator of Animals Lebanon, estimates that about 70 percent of Lebanese people dislike dogs and the bigger the dog, the more they hate it.
“When it comes to dogs, especially here in Lebanon, people are not used to idea of [them] as pets. They see dogs as animals that should be kept outside as guard dogs or hunting dogs,” she said. “When I walk my two dogs on the street people always have things to say. They say it’s unclean. They get mad or scared. I’ve been told I was crazy for owning a dog. I pick up after them, but it doesn’t matter.”
All the owners of large-breed dogs The Daily Star spoke to said they routinely get heckled but the most common reaction is fear, said Beirut-resident Pamela Manassian, who adopted her dogs Princess and Cookie 10 years ago when they were each a month old.
“Primarily, people are fearful,” she told The Daily Star while walking the duo in Clemenceau on a cold and rainy night this week. “Shockingly so. They climb walls when they see them. Some ladies would rather get hit by a car then walk next to them.”
Manassian does get stopped on the street by people who want to pose for photos with Cookie and Princess. “I usually get stopped by men who think they look tough. It’s a macho thing wanting a picture with two big dogs.”
Aggressive behavior in big dogs is only encouraged by the dominant training methods used in Lebanese obedience schools, according to Bechara Hitti, a trainer at the Bright Animals School in Mansourieh. Typically Lebanese dog-owners send puppies to “farms” that use chains and electrocution to train younger dogs.
Bright Animals, by contrast, provides private, in-home training sessions geared to both the pets and their “parents.” In what could be a sign that canine conditions in Beirut are improving, classes are regularly booked up to a week in advance, Hitti said.
“Things are getting better very, very slowly,” he said. “There are two types of people here. For some people dogs are like a car. They buy it for social status. They get the most expensive one they can find and chain it to the roof or outside. For a social animal like a dog this creates a constant state of anxiety because they are living with people who don’t like them.
“Then there are those who get a dog and it becomes a part of the family. I’d say there is about a 50-50 split.”
Rima Barakat commonly encounters the first type at the Beirut Ethical Animal Treatment center, which runs a shelter and adoption service for abandoned dogs. BETA has found homes for 2,500 dogs since it opened in 2004, Barakat said.
It is currently sheltering 300, but only expects the small breeds to get adopted. Large-breed dogs and ones with special needs are harder to find homes for.
“The most common reason is that people buy dogs for their children and the kids get bored after a year or the dogs get pregnant and give birth,” she said. “People think of dogs as things here. You go into Timberland and buy shoes because people are wearing them. Everyone has a dog so you buy a dog.”
While Lebanese people are notoriously social animals, Beirutis don’t have the space or the opportunity to socialize their dogs. Despite the lack of official dog parks, parking lots near USJ, AUB, the Beirut Waterfront and Baabda forest have emerged as informal meet-up spots.
Perhaps the most common complaint from both shelters and loving pet-owners alike is the lack of green spaces in the city.
“If you have a small breed it is okay,” said Barakat, who owns two dogs and fosters one in addition to her work at BETA. “If your dog is big it is a big problem because there is no place to walk them.”
Most of the dog boarding and day care facilities in the Beirut area keep dogs inside individual cages for most of the day but BETA’s Petville boarding facility in Hazmieh has an open, midsize indoor space where owners can drop their pets off for the day for $5.
S.O.S. Veterinaire in Ashrafieh also offers day care services and has an outdoor space for dogs to play in. They also walk a few dogs owned by residents in the neighborhood for $10.
Otherwise, Beirut dog owners are pretty much on their own. On the bright side, S.O.S. owner Eli Chaaly says most people who buy dogs in Beirut today are more prepared to properly take care of them than when he opened the clinic 12 years ago.
“After the war it was a trend to have a dog, like a fashion,” he said. “Now people who buy puppies know what a responsibility it is.”