A Look At Palestinian Attitudes Towards Companion Animals
With all of the various the geopolitical challenges present across the Middle East, conditions for companion animals have received scant attention. This is understandable, and somewhat typical of wartorn parts of the world — where human suffering is ubiquitous, animal suffering is generally a secondary concern. What’s more, conducting survey research in the region is fraught with difficulties.
Nonetheless, researchers in this study were able to perform a limited comparative study to see what they could learn about attitudes towards companion animals. They surveyed 99 Palestinian and 106 Norwegian students to compare their views regarding companion animal welfare. Norway is a largely secular country. In contrast, Palestine is a Muslim nation with most cultural, political, and family life impacted by that faith tradition. Thus, in Norway, religion is one of many potential sources of ethical teachings, while in Palestine, Islam is the main source most people use to guide their ethical values.
For context, the study notes that Islam teaches that attitudes towards animals should be defined by respect, compassion, and kindness. The primary sources of Islamic traditions are the Quran and the Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to the Quran, humans and non-humans should live in a harmonious relationship. God is the creator, and people are not set out as overlords but as guardians of nature. Indeed, there is a passage in the Hadiths that describes the cruel treatment of animals as a severe sin punishable by God, and in Sharia (Islamic law), people have a duty to ensure kind and respectful treatment of animals. Thus, humans’ relationship with companion animals, who are not singled out in the religious texts, should align with these teachings. And yet, the unfortunate reality is that animals in the Middle East are regarded as far inferior to people.
The researchers note that european attitudes emerge from a much different context. In Norway, 14% of homes care for one or more dogs, and 17% for cats. There is no comparable set of statistics on the prevalence of companion animals in Palestine, but the authors feel it’s reasonable to infer that there are many fewer companion animals in Palestine than in Norway. This is due in part to Islamic prohibition on dogs inside the home and also because Palestinians are worse off economically than Norwegians. Companion animals in Palestine seem to be seen as a luxury, and where they are present, they are likely to be cats, birds, or fishes. Dogs are most often strays, though people sometimes keep guard dogs and sheepdogs.
To conduct their study, researchers used the Pet Attitude Scale, a survey instrument developed in 1981 which gauges affection for and attitudes towards companion animals. Survey results showed that the Norwegian students had more favorable attitudes towards companion animals than did the Palestinian students. This may be at least partly due to exposure. Norwegians commonly keep animals in their homes for companionship while most Palestinians do not. Yet both groups displayed more positive than negative attitudes towards companion animals. This contrasts with previous research which has found that companion animals have little value in Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, the Palestinian and Norwegians students’ responses to whether one “should treat house pets with as much respect” as “a human member of the family” and to whether “I love pets” were remarkably similar.
While advocates might wish to jump in and capitalize on these encouraging results, we first need to gather more data. We need to hear from a broader segment of Palestinian society and Middle Eastern society more broadly. We also need to employ more modern survey instruments that reflect current thoughts about companion animals. Information about respondents’ degree of religious observance and how Islamic teaching shaped their attitudes towards animals would also be valuable. With this information in hand, advocates can map an effective road forward in this region. In the meantime, this study offers some encouraging, if preliminary, data.