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Society & Culture

The Stray Dogs of Tabriz—and the Woman Who Saved Them

November 6, 2014
Shima Shahrabi
6 min read
The Stray Dogs of Tabriz—and the Woman Who Saved Them
The Stray Dogs of Tabriz—and the Woman Who Saved Them
The Stray Dogs of Tabriz—and the Woman Who Saved Them
The Stray Dogs of Tabriz—and the Woman Who Saved Them


In Iran, dog walkers could face 74 lashes and a fine under new legislation put forth by a group of MPs. Walking a dog in public will become a criminal offence under the new measures, which are backed by over 30 parliamentarians, according to international media including the BBC and IranWire Persian.

In light of the renewed call for clampdowns on dog owners, IranWire is republishing this article, posted earlier this year, about a dog shelter in Tabriz that takes in stray dogs and tries to rehome them. 


For years, stray dogs have been a problem in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan’s capital city. Street dogs have been mistreated, abused and, in many cases, killed. Now, after years of campaigning from local dog lovers, the city’s authorities have suspended the practice of killing stray dogs, saying they are prepared to deal with the animal population humanely.

 “From now on stray dogs will be anesthetized with a dart gun and will be put into the care of private shelters,” said the general-director of the province’s urban affairs in late July.

Three years ago, the city council hired a private company to rid the streets of the strays. They took them to the city’s animal disposal unit, where the dogs were put to death. “There were between 200 or 300 dogs picked up around the town,” says Jila Pour-Irani, who led the initiative to protect Tabriz’s stray dog population and inform the public about what was going on.

 “There was no talk of anesthesia or painless death”, Pour-Irani says. “They finished the job with bullets". In their efforts to clear the streets quickly, she says those in charge of the operation did not even make sure the dogs were dead when they buried them. “Some dogs were buried alive.”

She and other dog lovers visited the animal unit and found that, like so many municipal government departments with stretched budgets, money was an issue. “It did not help their bottom line to buy ketamine and kill the dog after it was unconscious. So they used any other means to kill off the animal.”

It’s an image that haunts her, and one that she has tried to forget. “For a long time I had to struggle with these memories. I remember the creatures’ innocent eyes.”

After visiting the dog unit, Pour-Irani and her fellow campaigners pledged to do whatever they could to save the dogs in Tabriz. They met with the city’s head of Environmental Protection Organization, appealing to him to open an animal shelter for dogs and cats and introduce sterilization to halt population growth.  No one took them seriously— so they opened their own shelter.

“I always took injured cats and dogs home from the cold, took care of them and then let them go,” Pour-Irani says. But suddenly, she was responsible for creating a place just for them, and for ensuring their safety in a more formal, organized way.

It wasn’t easy. Pour-Irani and fellow campaigners sold some of their jewellery, took out loans, and embarked on a major fundraising drive, appealing to some of the wealthier residents of the city.  “One of them donated a large piece of land and we built the floor and the walls ourselves,” says Pour-Irani. And so the Pardis Animal Shelter was born.

Pour-Irani publicizes the center on Facebook, providing her number on the site and asking people to contact her if they come across a stray cat or dog.

In recent years, keeping dogs as pets has grown in popularity in Iran, especially among the middle classes. Until a few years ago, dogs were rare and so mostly tolerated, but, as pet ownership rose, authorities introduced a ban on dogs in public places. Now owning one can lead to trouble: the pets can be confiscated and taken away from their owners; in some cases, a dog owner can face prison.

 “Sometimes when we pet the animals and loaded them into cars to take to the shelter, people would make fun of us: ‘They must have lost their minds or they have nothing better to do,’ they said.”

In some cases, it went beyond ridicule: once, someone smashed one of the windows on Pour-Irani's car, presumably because they did not approve of what she and the other shelter volunteers were doing.

But none of this changed anything for them. “We had to prove that taking care of the animals and sterilizing them was a practical alternative to killing them,” she explains, “so we did not shrink from any action that we could take.”

“Before” and “After”

On Facebook, Pour-Irani regularly posts pictures of the animals at the shelter, providing captions to give people an idea of what condition the dog or cat was in when it came to the center.

I tell her the photographs are like “before” and “after” shots in cosmetic surgery advertisements. She laughs. The pictures taken when they first arrive show them looking weak and sick. “The moment they arrive at the shelter, the animals are bathed, treated for parasites and vaccinated. If they are sick, we treat them.” A few days later, there are photos of healthy animals, some of them playing and enjoying all the attention they receive.

Pour-Irani worked as a nurse at the nearby hospital for years, but now devotes all her time to the shelter. She takes care of vaccinations and bandages small wounds. Veterinarians give up their time for free, treating the more serious ailments.

The shelter now houses about 400 animals, and has designated areas for quarantine, female dogs and their newborn puppies, the clinic and a bathing area.

Daily food is prepared in two large vats. “We get chicken feet, neck and bones from the slaughterhouse and cook it with rice and macaroni. They love macaroni,” Pour-Irani says with enthusiasm.

On Fridays, people can visit the shelter. Animal lovers bring in bread or medicine, and some bring balls and play with the dogs. “When people visit our cats and dogs, it has a positive effect on them. It helps change the culture around how we deal with animals,” Pouri-Iran says. “People are always afraid that they might make them sick, but many change their minds when they see me— who spends all her time with cats and dogs and has no problems.”

People wishing to adopt pets from the shelter must meet certain criteria, she says. “We check out their situation, visit where the pet will live and make sure the person adopting them is an animal lover. If they end up not being able to take care of the animal, they can return it to the shelter.”

East Azerbaijan’s new policy for dealing with animals means if someone calls the council to report a stray animal, they put her directly in touch with Pardis Shelter. As a result, the center has received many more calls than usual.

“My wish came true,” Pour-Irani says, “ But I have other wishes too. I wish that nobody would ever set fire to a cat’s tail, nobody would pour boiling water over a dog and no animal is ever shot.” For Pour-Irani and her colleagues, protecting animals is a lifelong job. 


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