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Protecting the Animals of Cairo

While attending the OIE Global Animal Welfare Conference in Cairo, I was fortunate to meet Amina Tharwat Abaza, founder of SPARE, the Society for Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt. Colleague Jacqueline Bos and I were able to visit the SPARE shelter, located along a canal of the Nile in Giza. On the appointed day, Amina sent her trusted friend and taxi driver Ismael to get us.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Amina; SPARE’s administrator Madame May (whom Amina describes as the “heart and soul” of SPARE); Dr. Mohamed Nabawy, one of three veterinarian’s working for SPARE; several of the impressive young men who help care for the animals—Mahmoud, Wahid, Omar, and Mr. Mossaad—and scores of happy, healthy, sociable animals who greeted us like new playmates. That day, the shelter was hosting 90 dogs, 42 cats and one donkey.

SPARE provides free veterinary service to the local community, advocates better conditions at Cairo Zoo, and cooperates with other groups to end stray dog killings and improve conditions at Egyptian slaughterhouses.

SPARE teaches classes on respect for animals and disseminates information about Islam’s teachings regarding animals, while working with media to change attitudes. It also operates a stray animal sterilization and release program. Treated strays are returned to neighborhoods where they were found only if they will be safe there. Otherwise, they are put up for adoption. A potential adopter from the community must first work with the animal at the shelter and learn how to provide for him or her. Recently, SPARE has rented an adjacent building and is restoring it to hold additional animals and expand its education program. SPARE is fundraising to purchase the building and ensure the permanency of the animals’ quarters.

Animals at SPARE are the lucky ones, brought in by an owner or a concerned Cairo resident, or taken in after an emergency call or after employees have observed them in trouble. Upon arrival, dogs and cats are bathed, treated for external parasites, tested for rabies, sterilized, vaccinated, dewormed and microchipped. Then they are quarantined to determine their health status before being introduced to the existing population. Thereafter, the socialization process can take weeks for the most abused animals.

The morning of our visit, SPARE received a call from a boy about a dog in trouble. When staff investigated, they found a small, cream-colored puppy being used as a football in a street game. They brought the puppy back to the shelter and gave him a shampoo, treatment and much needed affection and rest. He was already recovering nicely. We also met a cat who had been blinded by acid, and a fearful dog who had been showered with acid, both recovering under the staff’s dedicated care.

The donkey was being treated for injuries sustained from months of wearing an ill-fitted halter and yoke. When healed, he will be returned to the owner who requested SPARE’s help. Dr. Nabawy explained that because owners need their farm and working animals for economic survival, it is important for SPARE to return them when they are well and teach the owner how to care for them. Otherwise, the owner may not want to seek treatment for his animals in the future. If the owner clearly does not care about the animal’s welfare, SPARE takes custody. Those animals are taken to SPARE’s sanctuary near Saqqara on the olive plantation owned by Amina’s husband, Raouf Mishriki, to live out their days with the best of care.

Dr. Nabawy treats Cairo’s weary beasts of burden and farm animals, both inside and outside the city. He drives into the countryside in SPARE’s mobile clinic, donated by two American ladies, where he treats horses, donkeys, cows, sheep and goats. Each time the mobile clinic is taken out, it costs SPARE around $300 for medicines. While SPARE receives some medicine donations, the needs of animals in Egypt are enormous, and SPARE’s financial resources are modest. SPARE has had to curtail routine visits to the countryside where it was easy for owners to bring animals for regular care. These days, the mobile clinic is able to respond only to emergencies.

Amina and colleagues have been criticized for using resources for animals when so many humans suffer. She responded in a 2007 interview in Al-Ahram Weekly, saying, “I realise mercy is indivisible. Say there is a man with a wounded donkey; it’s usually a poor man who can hardly provide for himself. Well, having treated the donkey, I would also help the man. If my calling was to help the man, I would still want the donkey treated. It is indivisible.”

Toward the end of the day, Amina invited us to visit SPARE’s sanctuary where 18 rescued donkeys were residing. On a bridge in the village where we stopped to buy hay from some farm women, a frantic mother dog was trying to grasp and carry a wet and dirty pup. The pup was large for the mother’s mouth, and every time she had hold of her and started to move away, people (thinking she was harming the pup) would shout and frighten the mother into dropping her. Amina rescued the puppy. It later became clear that the mother dog had been attempting to retrieve her pups from the canal where some children had thrown them. One only had to look at the steep, almost perpendicular sides of the canal to know how difficult this must have been for her. At the sanctuary, Amina gave the pup warm milk and cleaned her up. Then, after we had seen the donkeys, Ismael drove us back into the city. Amina later wrote to say the mother was okay and the pup had survived and was living with other pups at the shelter.

“I called her Mazlouma, which means in Arabic ‘victim of injustice,’” Amina says. “But in fact, knowing what had happened to her, all of us at the shelter spoiled her, and now she is not a victim anymore. She is the alpha puppy of all the puppies, and they and we are her victims. The staff teasingly says we should shorten her name to ‘Injustice.’”

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