Tuesday , February 20 2018

All life matters – ‘OUR PLANET … THEIRS TOO’

The newly-established Kuwait Liberal Society held its first official event, an expertly-organised and well-attended seminar on animal rights titled “Our Planet, Theirs Too.” Held in the KLS headquarters in Shuhada, the seminar was a powerful and impassioned plea to local authorities to remedy the dismal situation of stray animals that are suffering and dying on the streets of Kuwait every day.

Among the KLS members welcoming the guests were President Eman Hayat, members in the Media and Membership Committee Fatimah Al Hasawi and Hamad Al Saeed, and Co-founder Dr Ibrahim Dashti. KLS was officially licensed as a non-profit organisation by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in December 2017. According to the President, the group works “to strengthen the pillars of a civil state inspired by the principles and values of liberalism consistent with the constitution of Kuwait that promotes the spirit of freedom, justice, and equality.”

Among the group’s goals is to pay attention to ethics and morality of the society, regardless of religion, sect, gender, or ethnicity. They aim to create a civil society based on morality, dominated by human love and giving, where the individual is committed to the ethics of respect for others and the appreciation of public freedoms in accordance with the law.

Fatimah Al Hasawi explained that the group of Kuwaiti men and women chose to hold a seminar on animal rights for their first event in order to promote equal rights for all creatures to live peacefully together on earth. “We want to take a stand for animals. How can we be a civilised society if we do not show mercy towards helpless animals? They all have souls, just as we do.”

The program began with a graphic video made by the KLS team Fatimah Al Hasawi, Anwar Dashti, and Mohammed Al Sebaee. It was filmed on the streets of Kuwait and at the infamous Friday Market, where animals are sold in inhumane conditions, crammed into tiny cages without shelter from the heat or cold, often without food or water. It includes shocking scenes of horribly sick and terribly injured animals, some of them dragging themselves along with crushed limbs after being run over. The team also filmed dead kittens and puppies that had casually been discarded. The heartbreaking images were accompanied by simple captions: “I can’t speak for myself. You are my voice.” “We can’t walk away. Please help us help them.”

“We cried a lot during the filming of this video,” Fatimah recalled.

Master of Ceremonies for the evening Hamad Al Saeed introduced the first guest speaker, Tamara Hayat, an animal rights activist, volunteer with PAWS Kuwait, and an employee at Bayt Abdullah Children’s Hospice. Asking her to respond to what she had just seen in the video, she replied, “The problem is that animals are too often seen as something that can just be thrown away at whim. And when animals are run over on the road, people may feel pity for an instant, but they usually don’t do anything to help them. We need to change the way that animals are perceived.”

Hamad asked her to comment on a video on the PAWS instagram @paws_kuwait showing dogs and cats at the PAWS shelter. “The shelter is housed on private land that is rented by PAWS. It is not subsidized. The volunteers work hard to provide the animals with a warm, safe place to live, and they depend entirely on donations to pay the rent, workers’ salaries, food, medical care, etc. Expenses are very high and raising enough money is a constant struggle.”

Tamara asked the audience, “How many of you have been criticized for helping animals? And how many get criticized because ‘there are people in more need that you should prioritize’?’” A show of hands made it clear that these are indeed common remarks.

Tamara said that her response is to point out that she works in a children’s hospice, and that she makes time to help people and animals. “I assure you, it’s not even about choosing animals over humans. If you choose to help people in Rohingya, people will criticize you and say, ‘Why aren’t you helping people in Syria?’ In fact, it’s not about putting one group over another. If you manage your time right, you can help in more ways than one.

“It’s not a coincidence that people who believe in the pillars of humanitarianism are willing to help more than just one population group,” she continued. “A quote I like that best reflects this idea, by James Keller, states, ‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.’ Empathy is a skill, and it is our duty as a community to do everything in our power to foster that skill and allow people and especially children to learn and strengthen it. This will change the fate of not only animals in Kuwait, but the members of the community.”

Tamara went on to discuss the need for the animal rights movement to urgently move forward in Kuwait. She spoke of the ethical, humanitarian, and religious reasons that support the humane treatment of animals. “But it’s not just about the animals,” she stated. “It’s about Kuwait’s youth, education, children’s development and society’s understanding that all beings experience pain and suffering. We can help alleviate that suffering if we work hard, and work together.”

Tamara pointed out that countless studies have proven that abuse towards animals is correlated with violence against people, giving alarming examples and statistics. Cases of children who abuse animals should also be a red flag. This type of behavior indicates there is a problem with their mental health that needs to be addressed, before their aggression becomes worse and is directed towards people, as has been the case among students in the US who carried out deadly shootings in schools. Among the common characteristics of all these students was the practice of abusing animals.

“Thank God we haven’t yet had any school shootings in Kuwait, but we do have cases of violence, so let’s work to prevent such cases before they become a reality,” she said.

Outlining other measures that should be implemented, Tamara spoke about the need to ratify the GCC law against cruelty to animals so that it can become effective in Kuwait; holding widespread awareness campaigns to educate lawmakers, police, and the public about this important issue; and cracking down on dog fighting, a cruel and bloody practice popular throughout the world, and unfortunately, also in Kuwait.

“Pets are often stolen and used as dog fighting bait. Large amounts of money are bet at these barbaric events. Some people regard dog fighting as entertainment and even bring their children along, which is obviously very harmful to young minds,” she said.

Other important needs are strict laws on importing pets and regulating pet breeding and the standards of pet stores. “Did you know that the Friday Market does not have a license to sell pets? They are only licensed to sell feed, cages, and accessories. Most of the animals in the Friday Market are there because they were dumped by people who don’t want them anymore. They keep them there and expect to be paid once they’re sold. What happens when the animal dies due to the terrible conditions and infectious, not to mention lethal diseases that are prevalent there?” she remarked.

“We need a proper animal control department that is transparent in its procedures and must be properly regulated,” she continued. “It’s absolutely wonderful that there are so many groups in Kuwait rescuing animals and finding them homes, and getting them treated at the vets. But on behalf of every group I’d like to say that having Kuwait rely on these groups is unsustainable. It is incredibly taxing on these people’s personal lives and finances, and has a high rate of burn out. Unfortunately, as of now it is the only help available. Kuwait needs a reliable and dependable animal control department that does not resort to rat poison as the only solution. Within this department there needs to be veterinary care and a regulated government-sponsored shelter.”

Concluding her comprehensive speech, Tamara also emphasized the need for animal welfare education in the classroom and more platforms such as the Kuwait Liberals Society event. She thanked the KLS for bringing together people of different backgrounds that can provide insight into how to help with this important issue in different ways.

Next, Hamad introduced Timi Cissna, another animal rights activist with experience in rescuing and training animals and working with animals and autistic children. Hamad asked Timi about the common belief that having animals in the home can contribute to children developing allergies and other illnesses. Timi replied that in fact the opposite is true, and that children who grow up with animals usually develop a stronger immune system. “Personally speaking, I have always had all sorts of different animals all my life, and I’m as healthy as can be,” she said with a smile.

Timi said that her goal is to educate people about the countless number of stray animals suffering on the streets of Kuwait. “These animals, many of which have been abandoned by their owners, are helpless because they are not accustomed to living on the streets. Each and every animal lover here in Kuwait can lend a helping hand by protecting these animals and providing them with homes and shelter before they fall into the hands of individuals like the cruel people that my friend Tamara described.”

Timi mentioned various reasons why adopting a pet is much better than buying one. “First and foremost, you are saving a life. That’s something that will provide you with a sense of fulfillment that you may not be able to experience any other way. Many of these animals have experienced horrific circumstances and will provide you with unconditional love and loyalty for giving them a safe home.

“By adopting such animals, you are helping with the problem of the overpopulation of dogs and cats on the streets, and you are also helping the local animal groups and shelters, because they are all overwhelmed with unwanted animals,” she continued. “Providing medical help for all these animals is not always possible because the medical expenses are so high.”

Timi also spoke about some of the benefits experienced by pet owners, such as reduced stress and anxiety and a healthier lifestyle. “Kuwait has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. All dogs need exercise, so when you own a dog you are more likely to go and get the exercise that not only your dog needs but that is good for you too.”

Timi cited a study done by Loyola University in the US that found that patients who use pet therapy while recovering from surgery often need significantly less pain medication than those who do not, because when patients feel less anxiety due to the presence of their pet, they also feel less pain. Other studies have proven that animals can help people recover from traumatic events and that owning a pet has even been directly correspondent with decreased suicide rates. “Caring for another being gives one a sense of purpose and motivates them to get up and start their day every morning,” she explained.

In the United States and many other countries, animals are used to help sick and disabled people perform tasks they are not capable of performing by themselves, Timi said.  Common examples of service dogs are guide dogs to assist the blind and visually impaired, dogs that help people with impaired hearing, mobility assistant dogs, and psychiatric service dogs. Timi spoke of her own experience using her nine-year old rescued dog Nala to help children suffering from autism.

“My friend Laila and I took Nala to the autism center where she entertained and socialised with the autistic patients. It was one of the coolest experiences ever,” she said, her face lighting up at the memory. “The kids were so happy, they had the biggest smiles on their faces, and Nala just loved being with them. The kids really responded to Nala’s completely nonjudgmental and unconditional love.

“As you can see, there are countless benefits of owning a pet, but the reality is that there are large numbers of dogs and cats on the streets that will never have anyone to care for them,” summarised Timi. “We have shelters and rescue groups that can help you find your fluffy new best friend. Let’s be the change these deserving animals need.”

The second half of the seminar brought Maha Al Khatib and Sara Al Awadhi from Kareq8 to the stage. Kareq8 is a volunteer animal rescue, rehabilitation, and education organisation. The animals that are rescued by the group are kept in foster homes until they are adopted either locally or abroad. Maha and Sara spoke about the challenges facing the group and echoed some of Tamara and Timi’s frustrations and concerns.

Like other animal activists, members of Kareq8 also sometimes face criticism for concentrating their efforts on helping animals. “People tell us we need to solve the human rights issues first, but let’s be realistic, all the human rights issues will never be solved, so we need to work on both fronts,” Sara stated. “Besides, we have to take into account the fact that animals have no voice. If humans are in trouble, at least they can make themselves understood, unlike animals. In addition, we have the Red Crescent Society and many other well-organised and well-funded groups in Kuwait that are working to help people.”

It was pointed out that most of the animal welfare groups have a very limited number of volunteers. “We are only about fifteen members in Kareq8, and around five of those are very young, so we urgently need more committed volunteers,” Maha added. “We are not a government agency, we don’t get paid for this, we are all just volunteers with jobs and families who give our time to rescue animals.”

“Sometimes people call us and report an animal in a remote location, and we do our best to go there and pick it up and take it to the vet,” said Sara. “These private vets are very expensive, but we have no alternative. Every day there are sick and injured animals that urgently need our help, but sometimes our hands are tied because of a lack of funds. We need help, we can’t help them all just by ourselves. We also need more foster homes. When a person finishes their treatment in the hospital, they go home, but where does a stray animal go?”

“We get some really shocking cases of animal abuse,” continued Maha. “They are often so bad we can’t post them on our Instagram. If parents don’t teach their kids that hurting animals is not ok, then there is something seriously wrong. We also need to do more work in the schools and educate children on this issue.”

The Kareq8 volunteers also lamented the lack of effective animal welfare laws, the deplorable conditions at the Friday Market where sick and dead animals are simply thrown in the trash, and the fact that there are no mobile rescue vans for animals, and no help for animals from the government.

A lively discussion and question and answer session took place after each segment of the seminar. Dr Ibrahim Dashti spoke strongly and convincingly of the urgent need to take action for animals. “Why is nothing official being done to help animals? Each one of them is a soul. Where is our government, the Environmental Protection Agency, our politicians, our members of parliament, our religious leaders, public figures like actors, celebrities, and sportspeople? Why is there no public outcry? Except for these small groups of volunteers that are struggling on their own, I don’t see anyone doing anything to help. In this country we have an overabundance of shopping malls, coffee shops, and restaurants, but where is the government animal shelter?”

Lynn Whyte, the founder of Second Chance Charity, was another member of the audience with strong feelings on the subject of the plight of stray animals in Kuwait.

“I work with many animal rescue teams, mostly expats, gathering donations of pet food and essentials for rescued animals and also helping with vet bills. I have a lot of concerns regarding animal welfare in Kuwait. I see many problems on all levels and I’m hoping this meeting tonight will help raise more awareness, but more importantly I hope that the Kuwaiti government will realise the importance of education and protection of animal welfare. As an animal lover and Muslim I hope we can work together promoting Islamic values of the rights of animals.

“It’s time for Kuwait to act, just talking is not enough any more. There are resources here, land, manpower, and money. Let Kuwait be known for its fair treatment of these poor animals, not shame for its neglect,” she said. “Let Kuwait act on the abusers and educate the negligent. It’s time to start to care.”

The discussion continued, with KLS President Eman Hayat promising to schedule a meeting to follow up on animal welfare issues, particularly in regard to lobbying for the ratification of the GCC law for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Judging from the strong opinions of the audience and the large turnout, the issue of animal welfare in Kuwait should indeed be taken seriously by the government.

Concluding the successful event, MC Hamad Al Saeed gave a brief speech that summed up KLS sentiments. “Every day we take it for granted that we live in homes and we demand that hospitals take care of us, and we are given medicines that protect us from all kinds of diseases. But let’s put our human selfishness aside and remember that even the smallest creatures on this planet need to live with health and safety. Therefore we demand that free and humanely-run animal shelters and clinics be established. God gifted this land with the power of wealth to sustain us. Animals are the wealth that balance the earth and are an integral part of this land. Therefore, just as we care for human beings, we have to care for them.”

By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special to the Arab Times

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