Endemic corruption and human rights abuses are widespread in Azerbaijan, whose authorities’ systematic harassment, arrest, and imprisonment of political opponents has brought the Caucasian republic under international spotlight. However, still harm inflicted to animals goes undetected and remains pervasive.
In 2007, Azerbaijan ratified the European Convention on the Protection of Pet Animals which prohibits practices like reducing the numbers of stray animals through suffering or pain. However, it has remained a dead letter - stray animals are still subjected to harassment, when if not by violence, they are routinely shot, and news about dogs used in illegal fighting are not rare. There is no policy, no scheme, nor any publicly-run animal shelter.
Social media has provided an effective floor to animal rights’ activists; not only to criticize openly the government, but also to create a platform to discuss and search for solutions. Passionate animal lovers have been able to network and have joined forces to provide, on a volunteer basis, some basic assistance to the forgotten plight of stray dogs and cats in Baku. Outside the capital, street animals are left to themselves.
In 2010 a group of animal lovers gathered on Facebook and set up the Baku Animal Rescue Society (BARS), an informal crowd aimed at exchanging news in an environment where information is otherwise lacking, in the quest to help stray dogs. The virtual platform quickly gained traction. Two years later is was registered as an animal welfare charity and it currently manages a shelter in Pirishkul, in the outskirts of Baku, hosting about 80 dogs.
Run on a volunteering basis, mainly by young Azeris and a bunch of expats, organizations like BARS or the Baku Street Dog Rescue (BSDR) rely entirely on private donations to operate, hence funds are a challenge. 30-year-old psychologist Emiliya Tagiyeva has been working with BARS from its inception and has navigated its ups-and-downs, including the progressively shrinking of active volunteers - from 20 in the beginning, BARS now stretches its activity with four, she laments.
Volunteers have built open air kennels and helped scores of stray animals to get veterinary assistance as well as finding people willing to adopt them, but in general they voice that a perversive mistrustful attitude towards animals is rooted in society.
"I see parents who don’t allow their children to touch or get close to dogs, they fear to be bitten and think that animals are dirty and full of germs and diseases,” says Tagiyeva who lives with a dog and three cats. “It is a vicious circle: the kids will grow thinking along those lines and pass it on to their own children.”
Animal lover Saadat Zakiyeva agrees: “Children are like a sponges, whatever they see they take.”
Fear and aggression feed a threatening behaviour on the animal’s side.
"When a dog does not perceive empathy, it gets aggressive to defend itself, and it is a coping mechanism,” explains Zakiyeva who doesn’t have a dog, but whose seven cats keep her pretty busy at home. “A person thinks that a dog is bad so he or she will beat it. As a result the dog gets aggressive to defend itself and will end up biting. So people complain that dogs are aggressive, but do they ask themselves why?”
She maintains that respect for animals should be taught from an early age and the two organizations approached schools to discuss potential collaboration but, “they are not interested,” says Yana Mammadova, a 28-year-old office manager who volunteers at BARS.
Street dogs are a hard sell also among animal lovers in Azerbaijan as families would rather buy a dog with a pedigree, from a fancy breed, rather than adopt a stray one. Volunteers ended up looking beyond their country’s borders and finding a home in Europe and the US - they gather the needed paperwork and look after the medical assistance as the animals must be vaccinated, spayed or neutered before they are given up for adoption.
As stray barking is an issue, so is stray meowing. Afaq Qurbanova, a computer programmer and cat lover, founded the “Cats’ house” shelter in Sulutepe, in the outskirts of Baku. The shelter, that currently hosts 90 cats and ten dogs has been existing for four years.
"My friend had seven cats with disabilities, when she threw them away, I took them,” she recalls. “I rented a house and soon the number of cats increased and with them, their needs.”
The organization is pretty much just her. Like the other charities, money is a constant headache.
"I pay AZN 400 manat ($250) for the rent only, with food and medicine on top. Totally, we need approximately AZN 1500 ($930) every month. There are people who help, but we need more."
Yet, wandering around listlessly in the streets is not the worst that can happen to stray animals in Azerbaijan.
“People kick them, beat them, and abuses mount up to real torture,” notes Zakiyeva. The 31-year-old field hockey coach has been helping stray dogs for over ten years and two years ago she joined BSDR whose kennel in Pirshagi, a suburb of the capital, is home to 40 dogs and as many cats.
For Zakiyeva the government has the duty to address the issue of stray animals as it is a public health and safety problem.
"A vaccination and sterilization campaign should be carried out,” she stresses. “We consider ourselves Europeans, we held the European Games, and high level competitions like Formula 1, but in Europe there are no animals in the streets, and throughout the years this problem had been addressed and solved.”
There is a much darker side too.
In 2012 Baku hosted the Eurovision song contest which inaugurated a string of high-scale international events in Azerbaijan. But ahead of the popular competition, it emerged that the city council’s canine-control policy turned into a gruesome killing of stray dogs which caused a wide resonance and drew attention of international media. Authorities denied that the mass shooting was universal and stated that the cull would target only more aggressive dogs that cannot be dealt with otherwise.
Animal activists maintain that the cull was not limited to the run-up to the Eurovision contest, but is part of a practice and Zakiyeva asserts that squads from Baku’s city council systematically kill street dogs.
"The “Dog Box,” as it is called, is a car which is like a circle of hell,” she explains. “The killing system foresees one bullet per dog. If this bullet just injures the animal, then it is taken to another place, far from the city, and is killed with a stone or by hitting it to the wall. We were told that these men get AZB10 ($6) each per killed dog. We are fighting to stop this dirty business.”
The Mayor's office in Baku was unavailable to comment.
Former journalist Elkhan Mirzoyev is one of the 200 activists who in 2013 signed a petition to sue Baku’s authorities for a mass dog killings carried out in the district of Yasamal. The trial is still ongoing, states the 39-year-old, who currently lives in Lerik, 330km south of the capital and enjoys the company of 12 cats and five dogs.
"We’ve been going from one court to another, and judges just play the game with us,” he complaints. “The Supreme Court has sent the case back to the court of appeal stating more investigation is needed but the court of appeal dismissed the complaint. We’ve been going back to the Supreme Court, six times altogether, but nothing is decided. It has become a vicious circle.”
Killing the stray animal or building more shelters won’t solve any problems. "We want to solve this in a civil and human manner,” says Mirzoyev. “Sterilization is necessary, it is cheap. Why don’t authorities invest in such a programme instead of killing the animals?”