CAIRO - 11 October 2018: Islamic teachings go beyond kindness to human beings, with various teachings instructing people to feed animals, be gentle with them and never harm any living creature. Despite that, Egyptians are not quite famous for owning pets in their homes, and the institutionalized elimination of stray dogs and cats still exists.
Religious fatwas about animals are consistently encouraging people to be kind. In fact, according to Dar alIftaa, Egypt’s only religious institution responsible for issuing fatwas, harmless stray animals should not be put down, but rather be fed, as clearly encouraged in prophetic hadiths. The constitution is also on the animals’ side, with updated articles protecting animals against harm.
The fatwas of Dar al-Iftaa, being state-sponsored itself, are used by animal rights advocates to oppose governmental attempts to poison stray dogs en masse. But many deem stray dogs and cats as “harmful” if they steal food or defecate on staircases of apartment buildings, and go about killing them with a clear conscience.
A stray baladi dog on a car in Cairo - Abdelfatah A. Abdelfatah
The administrations of Cairo’s AlAhly and el-Gezira clubs have said they acted upon complaints by their members and poisoned large numbers of cats on their premises after they grew too many and too unafraid that they would jump on seats or tables while people ate.
The government usually acts on locals’ complaints when it attempts to get rid of dogs in a designated area. But an inadequate law and failure to implement it, coupled with society’s passivity towards animal abuse, have led animal activists busy fighting on various fronts; trying to educate people about how they can help and fighting authorities to implement the law instead of breaking it.
Egyptian animal rights advocacy groups have intensified their efforts and campaigns over the past few years to raise awareness for animal rights after a number of high-profile cases of animal abuse. Their campaigns seem to have paid off, and they hope charity for animals will increase in Ramadan and Eid el-Fitr.
In 2015, a video of a dog named “Max” being stabbed to death in a fight between his owner and other men in Cairo caused an uproar. The social media upset over the cruel video, and the campaigns led thereafter, have had an impact on public opinion and, perhaps, the judiciary. The three young men who killed “Max” were sentenced to one to three months in prison in a judgment reduced following an appeal.
The campaigns have relatively succeeded and helped improve the relationship between Egyptians and animals in streets. Since then, posts on social media promoting mercy towards animals have significantly increased and have been widely shared in ways that were not noticeable perhaps just five years ago.
From posts that ask people to wash empty tuna cans before throwing them away so they do not attract cats and injure their mouths, to posts telling people how to feed wild birds, kindness toward animals has gained a lot of traction on social media in the past few years.
For instance, the number of people who care enough to report animal abuse to animal rights organizations has significantly increased owing to social media, according to Salwa Abdoh, the head of the Egyptian Society for Defending Animal Rights (ESDAR). In 2012, ESDAR received about two reports on animal abuse on social media. More recently, in 2018, the organization received 30 reports in 45 days.
Workers at ESDAR treat an injured donkey - ESDAR
Other posts ask people to check under their cars before moving, as kittens or pups usually lie beneath cars, as well as to put buckets outside their doorsteps to quench animals’ thirst. More and more posts urge donations to animal organizations and intervention when animal abuse is seen.
However, Abdoh says, the increasing popularity of such posts often also backfires as people do not always report abuse for the right reasons or in the right way. “Sometimes people report animal abuse on social media to show off. Some would take a picture of a case, a horse that was hit by a car or an injured dog for example, post it on the concerned Facebook pages and leave the suffering animal,” says Abdoh.
“They expect us to have wings and fly to rescue the animal. Once, someone left a post that a donkey was walking against the cars on Cairo-Suez Road and was worried it might be hit. Why she did not stop is beyond me.” ESDAR gets reports on things like crippled dogs, for instance, or “tortured” cats that just happen to be bitten by another cat and not tortured at all.
Animal rights activist Salwa Abdoh with rescued horses - ESDAR
One of the most effective Facebook groups to promote animal rights is called “Save an Innocent Animal Soul (SIAS),” which was created in 2013 by five young women and one young man: Hoda Awad, Abeer Shoman, Maryam Sarwat, Huda El-Sayed, Mona Atef and Mahmoud Fahmy. Their main target was not only to rescue suffering animals, but also to encourage ordinary people to rescue and adopt street animals, and to report animal abuse through an ever-expanding network and community of animal lovers.
The main founder of SIAS, Awad, was in the street when she saw a kitten limping slowly until it sat on her sneakers, trembling. Not only did the kitten flounder its way to a new home after Awad adopted it, but it also drove her to establish the Facebook group.
“So if a person finds a sick animal and does not know how to help it, he or she could upload the animal’s picture and location on the group, and then one of the admins or any member close to the location provided goes to pick it up,” Awad tells Egypt today.
“The members of my group have reached 235,000 and I am happy about that. However, I feel extremely happy when we impact someone’s opinion and push them to change their hostile and careless behavior toward animals.”
Despite more interest to help animals, the float has not made things easier on these organizations. ESDAR’s Abdoh explains that although donations have increased since 2012, the value remained the same with inflation. “If a donor used to give us LE 200 a month, and now gives us LE 500; it is still the same [real value],” she complains.
An inadequate law
But to raise awareness is not enough for Mona Khalil, head of the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA), one of the prominent NGOs that focus on animals. Rather, law enforcement would be the most effective way to guarantee the welfare of animals.
“The government is committed to executing the law that protects animal rights. If we waited until we persuade the entire people that animal rights are like human rights, it would take many years. Animals need swift action to save and protect their lives and relieve their suffering,” Khalil says, adding that awareness will not stop rampant animal abuse.
Article 45 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that the state is committed to protecting endangered species and animal welfare, in a win for animal rights advocates.
But the law is still inadequate in the view of many activists.
El-Gezira Club was accused of poisoning stray cats in 2014, and a year later, Al-Ahly Club was slammed over another mass cat poisoning on its premises. The club cases, however, did not lead to a verdict, as the law does not include a penalty when the animal involved is a stray nor is not endangered.
Two stray cats sitting on a chair outside a carpenter's shop in Cairo - Basmah Salem
It’s also often disregarded when it comes to traditions that have long been established; like carts drawn by equines, which have been prohibited in Cairo for decades, but the law has failed to put an end to this means of transportation and work that has existed for centuries in Egypt. Animal rights activists dread these carts because their drivers often abuse the animals by whipping them, cutting them or over-working and underfeeding them.
In Abdoh’s view, arbagiya, drivers of equine-drawn carts who collect garbage or transfer rubble, are often rather abusive of the animals.
Abdoh explains that arbagiya are usually young kids sent by their parents to scavenge through trash to find something of value or that can be sold for recycling. They would whip the animal, make the donkey stand under the scorching sun for hours, and drive the cart in the opposite direction of cars, making themselves and the animals vulnerable to accidents.
They would also drive in the dark, although their carts do not have lighting.
But other equine owners treat their animals better, such as vegetable sellers, who load their goods on the cart and stop in a local market to sell, and then return home.
Rescued donkeys at ESDAR's farm - ESDAR
Fruit sellers treat their animals better than their fellow vegetable vendors, Abdoh says, adding that there are many vendors who would cover their animals with an oilcloth when it rains. She has also seen watermelon sellers break the fruits to feed it to the animal. A watermelon is worth around LE 50, an expensive meal for many.
A vegetable salesman kisses his horse – Egypt Today Hend Safwat
The lesser-loved Baladi dogs
In parallel with advocating to implement the law as well as raising awareness online, many activists are working toward raising awareness about Baladi dogs. Instead of being regarded as burdens to society, pestering people on the streets, activists are calling on animal lovers to adopt stray dogs instead of paying small fortunes in buying other breeds.
“The majority of dogs who live on the streets are malnourished and dirty, but if you take care of them, they would be just as pretty and good as any other dog and sometimes they would be better than other breeds. If you loved stray dogs and took care of them, they would be great, smart and protect you like any foreign dog breeds – like German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Rottweilers – do,” Mahmoud Atef, a dog trainer, says.
Atef adopted two Egyptian stray puppies, commonly known in Egypt as “Baladi puppies.” They are now living with Atef and his two other dogs – a Boxweiler and a Malinois. Later, he found out that stray dogs are emotionally intelligent, easy to train and to socialize with.
“Baladi dogs are more alert than other species in recognizing dangers. If someone comes close to my home while all the other dogs are asleep, the Baladi dogs are the first to notice this stranger and they start barking to alert me before my Boxweiler and Malinois do,” he explains.
Similarly, on el-Geish Street in Cairo’s district of Abbassiya, a newspaper seller takes care of stray dogs in the area. “I try to help stray dogs and cats as much as I can, by bringing some food and treating them mercifully,” newspaper vendor Ali Helal tells us, surrounded by three stray dogs.
Ali Helal sits among stray dogs during his night shift Egypt Today Hend Safwat
“Stray dogs are immensely smart. Last month, I fell asleep during my night shift and two thieves tried to rob me. However, two stray dogs called Naema and Shabel, immediately began barking frantically to wake me up.”
Nagy el-Shamy, a bread seller, has been noticing how stray dogs behave on the streets. “Look at Egyptian stray dogs whilst crossing the road, you will notice that they wait until the traffic becomes slower, and when they fail at crossing the road alone, they will wait until they see a human crossing the road, in order to cross with them,” Shamy explains.
Despite them being resilient to diseases due to their mixed genetics, and how loyal and intelligent they’ve proven to be, people are yet to be accustomed to the idea of adopting Baladi dogs.
Ahmed Elwi, a trainer certified by the Professional Dog Trainers Academy, has trained dogs for 12 years. However, only two customers brought in Baladi dogs to be trained, Elwi tells us, adding how well they are at being trained and how they mix well with children and people with special needs.
Even the Egyptian authorities do not intend to tap into the Baladi pool and instead import foreign breeds as police dogs, rather than training Baladi ones.
What you can do
Abdoh explains that you can make a difference in animals’ lives without even donating or volunteering, but rather through simple daily gestures.
1. Throw food scraps in corners in the street. Stray animals will eat them immediately and dogs will not bark at people on streets when they are not hungry.
2. When you see an injured animal, help it and do not just leave after calling an animal rights organization. Sometimes the animal just wants a sip of water before it passes away.
3. Do not rush to call the authorities regarding stray dogs; call animal rights organizations first.
4. Neighbors can share the expenses of neutering stray animals in their district. They just need to call animal rights organizations and they will pick up the animals for the operation at veterinary clinics.
5. Educate children that mistreating an animal is not acceptable.