SHAH ALAM, Selangor: Nurul Ain Abdul Hamid has more than 400 cats and around a dozen dogs under her care at SI Home Shelter. However, the animal she has deepest affection for is no longer living there.
Marvela, a yellow mongrel, was the first dog Nurul Ain, 28, ever rescued and she said it has a “special place” in her heart.
“I found her injured and tried to nurse her back to health. However, her two front legs were infected and had to be amputated. It was traumatic for me,” she said.
After the surgery, Marvela had to live without front legs and paws, which made moving around onerous. However, Nurul Ain said she remained “as adorable as ever”, greeting shelter workers by wagging its tail, hopping on its hind legs “like a kangaroo”.
Eventually, Marvela was adopted by a celebrity couple - comedian Harith Iskander and his wife Jezamine Lim.
“I miss her so much, but we still share her. They still send us photos and videos of Marvela, and I even visit sometimes,” added Nurul Ain.
As part of the shared custody arrangement, Nurul Ain would also take Marvela back to her home on some occasions.
Her husband, Muhammad Razeef Che Samah also has close affinity with dogs. The 39-year-old, who founded the shelter in 2012, also recalled vividly the first dog he rescued.
“I saw it being hit by a car and took it back. I wanted to find someone who would adopt but I couldn’t so it became my pet for seven years. It eventually died from a kidney problem,” he said.
Nurul Ain and Muhammad Razeef fell in love, largely because they shared a passion for animals.
While keeping cats is a norm in Malaysian society, caring for, touching and petting dogs is a controversial subject.
Many Malaysian Muslims consider dogs to be impure. Keeping them as guard dogs or for hunting is tolerated, but treating them as pets is considered a step too far.
“ISLAM TEACHES US TO CARE FOR ANIMALS”
According to the shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence, which is widely practised in Southeast Asia, any Muslim who touches a canine’s saliva or excrement has to undergo a ritualistic wash involving water mixed with soil.
Nurul Ain and Muhammad Razeef maintain that their work in giving dogs shelter and food does not make them “less of a Muslim”. But they recognise that Malaysian society, where a majority are Malay Muslims, has a social stigma against dogs due to its “perceived impurity”.
“We can’t change this mentality, especially in our Malay community. Some critics say what we are doing is wrong, it’s haram (forbidden). But we think Islam teaches us to care for animals and help them survive,” said Nurul Ain.
She noted that her intention of keeping the dogs in her shelter was to protect them from harm, keep them healthy and find them a family who would adopt.
However, after taking care of the dogs from when they were abandoned puppies, the couple has grown to love the dogs as well, and parting with them before giving them up to families can be difficult.
The couple shared that they have received threats from other Malaysian Muslims, most of them online, criticising them as “liberal” and more accepting of “ungodly” Western influences.
Nurul Ain said that these labels do not affect them, as they do comply with Islamic law by undergoing ritual cleansing after coming into contact with dog saliva or droppings.
“It’s a weird mentality. They would accuse us of no longer being Muslims, and some of them who are naive would say that dogs are haram to be near to,” said Nurul Ain.
DOGS BEING ABUSED DUE TO STIGMA: NURUL AIN
She warned that this stigma in society has caused many dogs to be abused and hurt.
In the course of her work rescuing dogs, Nurul Ain said she has seen dogs getting hurt by humans who would throw rocks, kick or even poison them.
“Some are aggressive, but a large majority of these dogs do not harm humans. But due to some religious misconceptions, they hurt the dogs. I don’t know why they have this mentality, but the majority of our community don’t like dogs walking around their homes,” she added.
While the couple is determined to save as many dogs as they can, a large proportion of the shelter’s resources is focused on caring for cats.
Since it was founded in 2012, the shelter, a three-storey shophouse in Shah Alam, has nursed more than 1,000 cats who were all initially sick but were rescued, treated and offered up for adoption.
Nurul Ain and Muhammad Razeef are unfazed by the criticism and controversy on them caring for the animals, and they are determined to soldier on.
READ: No evidence of pets transmitting COVID-19 to humans, says Malaysia’s veterinary services department
SHELTER SOMETIMES A FINANCIAL BURDEN ON FAMILY
However, they acknowledged that getting by could be difficult during some months, especially after taking into consideration costly veterinary fees.
For instance, Nurul Ain pointed out how a virus that has infected a few cats in the shelter in July has resulted in a RM8,000 (US$1,883) hike in costs.
She said typically, the costs of maintaining the shelter would be around RM15,000 a month, with around RM6,000 to pay for the salaries of her workers, RM2,000 for the food for the animals, while the remainder would be for rent of the three-storey shophouse as well as electrical, water and vet bills.
To sustain this, the shelter depends on donations from the public, but the amount is not consistent.
Hence, Muhammad Razeef repairs motorcycles and sell motorcycle accessories on the side while Nurul Ain tries to earn from her online business selling make-up.
The couple also has to consider their own living expenses, as well as the cost to care for their four-year-old son, who is autistic.
“It’s difficult but we have to try. If we don’t strive to help these animals, who will?” said Nurul Ain.