Punishing people for feeding stray cats, as a new push by Dubai municipality aims to do, is the wrong approach to dealing with unwanted animals.
A starvation policy for stray cats and a fine for compassion
Nothing was ever wasted in our house. Whatever was left over from the dinner table was carefully placed into separate bowls and put outside in a row in our massive garden.
Within seconds, the garden cats would run over and descend on the food. They were usually in groups of five or six, all neutered and spayed, and any new ones that showed up were quickly fixed for a discounted fee by a family friend who was a vet.
As a child, I would take in this scene and watch as, in between bites, the cats would come over to my mother, rub against her leg, meow at her in what she said was a "thank you", before returning to their food.
My mother inspired others to do the same in our residential compound in Jeddah, with several women taking up the challenge of gathering cats, getting them fixed and bringing them back to the compound to battle the ever-present rodent problem. Only the very sick, hopeless ones were put to sleep.
Other residents and even the Saudi owner of the compound commended my mother for her efforts. Now, if she lived in the UAE, she might be fined on a daily basis for these acts of kindness.
Dubai Municipality announced this week that it will start applying a 2003 Federal law prescribing a Dh200 fine for people who feed or give water to stray animals. This has sparked a heated debated between animal welfare advocates and the authorities, as well as among residents.
The criticism, from animal lovers like myself, focuses on the inhumanity of using starvation tactics to reduce the stray population, instead of the more costly but effective trap, neuter or spay, and release method. The instinct to survive will just drive starving animals to the rubbish bins.
I called the Municipality to get a clarification. "Yes, anyone seen causing a problem by putting out food or water for strays will be fined as these creatures are a health hazard," said a customer service operator at the Municipality. I asked if this included birds. "Yes," he said, if there are "too many birds" being fed and leaving a mess.
I asked who I could talk to at a higher level to explain that the fine will be punishing that thin section of society that is compassionate in the first place. The very same people who are already in debt, putting what little they earn into saving a starving animal, are going to be punished instead of helped.
You rarely see someone jumping out of a Ferrari to feed a cat. It's usually a woman, and of modest wealth at that.
The advice was that I send a suggestion as to how to "improve" the law. So I sent a letter advocating animal shelters, so that if residents don't want strays around, there would be a place to put them. It is just too inhumane to get rid of the unwanted through starvation.
There is a religious aspect as well. Islam stresses the importance of animal welfare and rights. Every Muslim grows up listening to Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed that order mercy for animals. One oft-repeated Hadith tells how a woman went to Hell because of a cat "which she neither fed nor let it eat from the vermin of earth". Others went to heaven and were blessed for showing mercy, such as a man who stopped and gave water to a stray dog.
The Prophet said: "Once there was a dog wondering around, dying of thirst, when a prostitute saw it. She then took off her shoe and used it to give the dog water. She was granted forgiveness [for her sins]."
"It is not a matter open to debate, as a Muslim you are ordered to show mercy and compassion for animals and birds," a mufti at the UAE General Authority of Islamic Affairs & Endowments told me.
Introducing a penalty for compassion also has a negative effect on children and future generations. I know I am compassionate because of what I learnt at home.
No amount of fines would have ever stopped my mother. When I told her about the recent news, she was shocked. "Earth was not just created for humans," she said.
On Twitter: @Arabianmau