Facebook may be best known in Azerbaijan as a tool for mobilizing government critics, but a new generation of Azerbaijani civil society activists is relying on the social networking site for quite a different purpose -- promoting animal welfare.
In only six months, the Baku-based Helping Stray Animals group has grown from a few isolated animal activists to a group of thousands.
“I always felt like I was the only one,” said Sumara Aliyeva, one of the directors of the organization. “Everyone would laugh when I’d protest about the cruelty I saw. Then, I found this group and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
On a typical day last month, Aliyeva [no relation to Azerbaijan’s presidential family] and two other activists stood arguing with a security guard to gain access to a BP office building in Baku. They had received a phone call from an employee that a dog and her eight puppies were on company grounds.
“If we don’t take them tonight, the company will shoot them by the end of the day,” said Monsura Rashid, founder of the Noah Alliance, an umbrella group for several animal-welfare projects, including the Helping Street Animals group. While such shootings are technically illegal in Azerbaijan, animal activists say they are the status quo.
After about six grueling hours, the puppies and mother were in the trunk of Aliyeva’s SUV, headed to a temporary shelter to be photographed, fed and possibly adopted.
In a country not celebrated for its tolerance of stray animals – no official animal shelter is said to exist in Baku -- Facebook has played a crucial role in connecting these activists. “We all met through this work,” said activist Leyla Akhundova, “We see all these buildings going up in Baku, all this development, but you cannot have only material improvement. We need spiritual progress, too.”
Helping Stray Animals has grown to some 20 active members who respond to several Facebook requests each day to pick up, adopt, sterilize or humanely put down street animals. Its general membership has grown to nearly 2,500.
Aside from the calls for action, the group also provides updates about every donation received and expense incurred. It receives no funding from grants.
“Two neat columns: a signed receipt of who gave what and then what we spent it on,” said Akhundova of the updates, which carry significance in Azerbaijan’s corruption-rife society. “How else is anyone going to trust us with their money?”
In the last six months, the group has placed over 150 animals into homes and has paired many more with temporary accommodations, provided by volunteers in the Baku suburb of Mashtaga.
An anonymous donor has given the Alliance two acres of land in Mashtaga where the group is building what they claim is “Azerbaijan’s first animal shelter in history.” The Facebook group has found within its own ranks the architect, contacts for construction materials and labor needed to construct the shelter.
Yet despite the regular success stories the group posts on Facebook, active members say the challenges often seem insurmountable. “The cruelty we see every week is just staggering,” said Akhundova, “Dogs with bullet holes in their snouts running around for days. It’s unspeakable. But people ignore it, while their children watch animals get shot in front of their eyes.”
In 2007, Azerbaijan ratified the European Convention on the Protection of Pet Animals, which prohibits such practices, but is not routinely enforced, activists say. The Baku city government could not be reached for comment.
Many members say the group’s goals -- humane treatment of animals, ending street exterminations and reducing the stray population -- all boil down to awakening people’s sense of dignity.
The group hopes that international events such as next year’s Eurovision contest will help them pressure the city of Baku to enforce existing animal welfare laws. In the meantime, members say they are trying to spread their message through their example.
“Some people say ‘Thank you’ a thousand times, but others say ‘What? You have nothing to do besides chasing dogs? It’s easier just to shoot [them],’” said Aliyeva. “And it is easier, but we think we have to take our city into our own hands.”
Vladic Ravich is a freelance writer and photographer formerly based in Baku.