Nizami Ramazanov is a rare beast in Azerbaijan: an animal rights activist.
An animal lover since he was a child, the 32-year-old Ramazanov recalls collecting signatures for a petition to the government to create animal shelters and protect animals’ rights, and one woman thought he was a panhandler. “Finally she dug into her bag, found a 20-gepik coin [about USD 0.12], and told me: ‘Take it and go away,’” he said with a laugh.
Azerbaijan does not have a long tradition of animal rights protection; its beleaguered activist community has its hands full defending the rights of its own species. But that is changing, and animal rights activism, no longer the sole province of individual animal lovers like Ramazanov, is becoming mainstream.
One construction materials company, Bakupan, undertook an unusual-for-Azerbaijan social responsibility project after heavy snow hit Baku this January, constructing small houses for stray animals. “We decided that instead of throwing out leftover materials, we could use them to make warm houses for pets," said Shahruz Hazanzade, the director of the company. The idea came from the factory workers, “who were witnessing how miserable the dogs around the factory were in the snow,” he said. The company made over 120 pet houses this winter, and plans to continue the project.
An organization founded by Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of President Ilham Aliyev, opened an animal shelter in Baku on March 1. The IDEA Animal Care Center will offer vaccination, sterilization and medical care for homeless animals for free, and will try to find homes for them. This is Baku’s first large animal shelter; previously there had only been small, volunteer-run operations.
Other private initiatives have sprung up, as well. One online effort, Baku Street Dog Rescue, launched in 2015 with the mission of finding forever homes for Baku street dogs. Since then, about 300 Baku dogs have been taken in by foster families through the initiative.
But about 98 percent of those foster families are abroad, in part because Azerbaijanis chafe at the many requirements for adoption that the group has imposed, said Khayal Sadig, a volunteer for Baku Street Dog Rescue. One of the adoptees even became a minor social media celebrity, appearing at a protest in the United States wearing a sign, “I’m a Refugee From Azerbaijan and I Don’t Bite.”
“The number of animal lovers and awareness has increased thanks to social media,” said Mansura Rasulzade, the head of the organization Alliance to Protect Wildlife. “We’re seeing a revival, but there is also still a lot of killings, violence and cruelty toward animals.”
One of the drivers of the new wave of activism is anger at the mass killings of stray dogs in Baku ahead of high-profile events in the city that will attract foreigners. Videos taken by onlookers and posted to YouTube or Facebook show animal control officers rounding up dogs, and dogs that appeared to have been killed after being rounded up. Videos appeared online ahead of several such events, including the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the European Games of 2015, and a Formula One race in 2016, and have again recently emerged ahead of the Islamic Solidarity Games, to be held this May in Baku.
These mass killings violate the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, which Azerbaijan signed in 2003, animal activists say. In 2013, several activists sued the Baku City Executive’s office for violating the Convention. A series of courts in Azerbaijan dismissed the complaints, and in January, the case was sent to the European Court for Human Rights. The Baku City Executive’s office did not reply to calls and emails from EurasiaNet.org seeking comment.
Azerbaijan’s government has been cutting back on government programs that could help stray animals, said Elkhan Mirzoev, a Baku animal rights activist who led the lawsuit against the Baku city government. He noted that the city office dealing with homeless cats and dogs is the Department of the Fight Against Stray Animals. “We, as a state, officially reduce the number of all state veterinarians, and then we wonder why the problems are not being resolved, but are increasing,” he said. Nevertheless, he allowed that the IDEA shelter is “in general, a good initiative.”
Ramazanov said he is gratified to see the growing awareness of animals’ rights. “I think we’ve achieved some results, even though they’re small,” he said. “I personally know people stopped injuring, throwing stones at the dogs. Some people are afraid of getting fined [there is a law prohibiting cruelty towards animals], some have developed a conscience about it, and some have a fear of God. Anyway, thanks to the volunteers, awareness is rising.”
He struggles to get by, living with his mother and working only three months a year as a waiter during the tourist season in his home town of Zagatala. But he spends an estimated half of that income on helping animals, feeding strays and even sending injured street animals by bus to Baku for veterinary care. He even recalls at one previous job secretly rescuing mice and rats caught in the basement of a restaurant where he worked, dropping oil onto the glue traps to release them.
“As a jobless person, it is very difficult to survive. I’m overloaded,” he said. “But it’s our duty to rescue animals. If everyone just focuses on their own problems, who will take care of the poor animals?”
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.