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Neutering Nunu: A Dog-Culture Clash in Iraq

Unlikely Ally: Veterinarian Leith Jacob Sabah with his groggy patient.
Katia Dunn/NPR
Unlikely Ally: Veterinarian Leith Jacob Sabah with his groggy patient.
Adopted Pet: Nunu relaxing in Iraq.
Katia Dunn/NPR
Adopted Pet: Nunu relaxing in Iraq.

In Iraq, one of the connections NPR's Baghdad bureau has made centers on a white terrier that sought refuge from the mayhem of Sadr City. The staff took him, and named him Nunu. But like many impulsive pet adoptions, we didn't anticipate the problems that owning a dog can bring.

A few months after Nunu came to live with us in Baghdad, I asked Ghasson, an NPR translator, to call a veterinarian and make an appointment. We needed to have Nunu neutered.

Ghasson didn't have any idea what I was talking about.


I explained that in the States, when we own a dog, we think it's responsible to stop it from reproducing. We even call it "fixing." In Iraq, Ghasson explained, it is just the opposite.

"The idea of having a dog is to have puppies — and especially that you may give one of the puppies to one of your close friends, your neighbors, your relatives," Ghasson said.

"But right now we are going backwards. Instead of having more puppies, we are trying to stop the coming puppies. Which is a kind of nonsense."

It was Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and I who decided we had to neuter Nunu. Garcia-Navarro is a correspondent in Baghdad. Nunu kept getting lost — slipping out to gallivant with the pack of stray females who roam the street outside our bureau. "The snip," as she called it, seemed like the only solution.

On the day of Nunu's appointment, I tried to slip out the door quietly with him. But the staff caught me on the way out.


"Everyone is sad about Nunu," Ghasson said to me. He explained that for Iraqis, having a big family is a great achievement — a basic right that we shouldn't deprive man or dog.

Another translator, Isra, went so far as to say that Nunu would be the scorn of the neighborhood. Before this, she said, she always thought that the stray dogs outside envied Nunu for his posh indoor lifestyle.

"But now that he will stop being a male dog, I think no stray dog will think of envying him anymore," Isra said.

I assumed the Iraqi vet would — like U.S. vets — be an advocate of population control.

But this is the first thing the veterinarian, Leith Jacob Sabah, said to me: "This is the season of breeding. I prefer to find him a girlfriend. What do you think?"

Sabah explained that veterinarians in Iraq are basically matchmakers. Sabah proudly told us about hundreds of arranged dog marriages. He'd even brokered a few international unions.

I insisted. Sabah shrugged, and started shaving Nunu's fur.

Ghasson and I stood by and whispered as we watched Sabah and his assistant do the surgery.

"I think from now on, he's going to be fat," Ghasson said. "Because he will focus on eating only. Only desire left for him."

When we brought Nunu home later that day, I admit he looked pathetic, all bandaged up. Isra and Nada, two translators, were horrified.

"There's no other solution?" Nada asked. "Just an operation? It's awful."

"I believe you should give him asylum now in the United States," Isra said. "He doesn't fit here anymore."

Nunu has pretty much recovered. We're glad we don't have to worry about little baby Nunus showing up on our doorstep. The staff seems to have moved on.

But had we done the right thing? I asked Garcia-Navarro what she thought.

"I think it's one of the things that you grapple with here all the time," she said. "Whether you're imposing your own system on an alien culture ... and you always end up questioning yourself."

And of course no single one of us can say for sure if it was a good decision — except for maybe one dog.

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