Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 - 31 October 2001
Issue No.557
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

clockwise from top: morning feed with Suzy in attendance; Carrie waiting for someone to love her; Amina with mother and puppies

The (awful) truth
about cats and dogs

Fayza Hassan finds that help is finally at hand for those who cannot help themselves

Mrs Albert Bajocchi moved to Maadi just before the beginning of World War II. Vera (or Madame Baiko, as Maadi's gardeners fondly called her), was known for her radical politics but also for the great compassion she felt for strays of any kind. Unlike many who profess a universal love for the animal kingdom but lavish their affections only on some prize pampered pet, Vera acted in her own extreme way. "After the war, the Bajocchis commissioned their relation, architect Gaston Rossi, to design their villa... Vera later sold it in order to sustain her menagerie of orphaned and stray animals," writes Samir Raafat in Maadi 1904-1962, Society and History in a Cairo Suburb. Anyone who lived in Maadi was familiar with the characteristic silhouette: Vera, ramrod-straight, carrying a huge pot of food in one arm, a stick in the other and followed by a horde of stray cats and dogs. The stick was used to threaten the antagonists in any fight that could erupt between feuding groups, and also, in her later years (she carried on her mission well into her 80s), simply for support, although she never admitted that her daily strolls, which took her from one end of the suburb to the other, were straining her health.

If Vera had to make the rounds feeding healthy but famished animals on the streets, it was because she always had a house full of cats and dogs unable to fend for themselves. Victims of accidents, abandoned newborn kittens and puppies, an injured bird or two spilled over into the bathroom, her kitchen, the balconies and even the stairwell. Vera died not long ago, and if the animals could speak they would certainly tell us that their precarious lives have become worse since her disappearance.

Vera's daughter, Monica, a mother of two beautiful girls, also opened her house to starving, injured or mistreated strays. Until her untimely death, she could be seen every morning in the garden of her Maadi villa administering potions, eye and nose drops and pills to the newcomers. More examples of animal saviours come to mind: painter Laila Izzat, known for her kind heart, has a house and garden full of pets, which include geese and a collection of exotic animals that she has rescued from the hands of unscrupulous traders. Gulsun, another charitable soul, has had her life turned upside down by the collection of wounded cats and dogs she has rescued; regardless of her busy schedule, she courageously continues to bring home the injured and hungry animals that cross her path.

Many foreigners adopt strays, but they do not stay on forever. There comes the day when they have to return to their country and, whether due to the prohibitive cost of taking their pets along or to specific quarantine laws, as is the case for British and Australian citizens, they are more likely than not to leave their animals behind. In worst-case scenarios, the creatures are sometimes dumped unceremoniously on the street, where they are unlikely to survive. Heartbreaking stories abound. Moved by so much misery, a group of women have launched Animal Friends. Laurie, Barbara and Suzy place their foundlings at the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals), but this is a temporary solution, since the dispensary takes animals against a fee for short periods only. Fortunately, so far the three women have been able to find suitable homes for most of their rescapees through an efficient system of information.

Over the years, a number of people have tried to address the problem of stray animals with whatever means they have had at their disposal. Some are known; others, like the old lady who feeds the canine and feline population downtown every day at dawn, receive no publicity. They all seem to share a common characteristic, however: it is not the love of animals or the desire to own a collection of pets that propels them to action, but rather a need to alleviate misery wherever it is observed, disproving the oft-voiced, bitter remark that if people have enough time and money to save animals, they should channel their charity toward human beings. Those who are lucky enough to feel compassion do not restrict it to a single domain. Their kindness generally extends to anyone or anything in need of help.

clockwise from left: Dr Farouk Bahgat at the clinic; crippled from birth, Suzy's little friend helps care for the foundlings; at the PDSA, waiting to be adopted photos: Mohamed Mos'ad, Randa Shaath
Amina Abaza is one such person. In her free time, she used to roam the streets of Cairo in search of abused donkeys and horses. Whenever she found a responsive cart owner, who understood that his animal's welfare concerned him directly, she would direct him toward Brookes Hospital in Sayeda Zeinab, where "working" animals are treated for free; when the owner was unwilling to cooperate, she would try to buy the animal, often for an outrageous price, and arrange for its transportation to the hospital. In time however, the cruelty with which helpless animals are generally treated got to her and she decided to do more. Since the number of stables is limited at Brookes, the staff cannot keep the ailing animals forever. Amina therefore decided to take a number of the oldest and most battered beasts to her husband Raouf Mishriki's farm at Saqqara, where they can spend their last days in peace. Although the farm has its share of stray cats and dogs as well, Amina felt another place was necessary. There she could keep the smaller animals she rescued while she endeavoured to find homes for them. Moreover, donkeys, mules and horses from the area were in dire need of medical care. She thought for a while and, with her partner, Suzy Tawfiq, came up with a solution. They needed an association that would allow them to carry out their work efficiently. While the paperwork was being completed to register the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights (SPARE), Amina and Raouf built a proper animal shelter/clinic. Even before the construction had received its final touches, she was receiving the first inmates.

I was invited on a grand tour of Amina's "network" a few weeks ago. First we drove to Brookes Hospital, where she had brought two donkeys the previous day. She had to arrange for them to be transported to Saqqara. In the stables, Dr Salah was treating around 30 donkeys for exhaustion and various injuries. I noticed the cleanliness of the surroundings, heralded by the strong odour of disinfectant that hit my nostrils as the door was opened. Dr Salah had bad news for Amina: one of the donkeys she had bought was beyond salvation. Dr Salah suggested keeping him for a few days to see if he would heal, but otherwise advised her to put him out of his misery. Amina extracted a promise that the doctor would do his very best to save him. The other donkey was fine and ready to go to the farm. We then went to the hospital offices to meet its director, Colonel Hassan Sami. We congratulated him on the state of the hospital, which had experienced great decline a few years ago, and he assured us that we could call for the Brookes ambulance any time we witnessed an accident involving horses or donkeys.

From there we moved on to Suzy's cat shelter in Maadi. Suzy does not like the idea of keeping the cats caged for a long time so she comes in every day to take them out and give them the run of the apartment. Apart from a few paying "guests" waiting for their owners to pick them up when they returned from their summer holidays, the shelter is home to several strays rescued from various life-threatening incidents. Suzy wanted to tell me their stories but they were so heartbreaking that after the second, I begged her to stop, and concentrated instead on photographer Mohamed Moss'ad's efforts to gather the boisterous cats around Suzy for a photo. Only her crippled white dog was willing to pose. The feline crowd, probably mistaking Moss'ad for the vet, kept crawling under the furniture. We left Suzy, who still had to visit the nine stray dogs she keeps in another part of Maadi, and headed for the Pyramids.

We stopped just a little way past the sign indicating Harraniya. A high wall hides the shelter from view. At the door, a strange sculpture of a horse is the first indication that the place belongs to animal lovers. Inside, Amina could not contain her enthusiasm, and quite rightly so. She has accomplished miracles. A sparkling office and equally spotless clinic bespeak the attention to detail she has lavished on the premises, although the materials used were chosen with an eye for economy. Nothing fancy or eye-catching: the small rooms -- they are much larger than cages -- feature wooden roofs and are equipped with sturdy, functional benches to keep the animals off the tiled floor and large barred windows to allow plenty of fresh air in. Carrie, a lovely young dog of mixed pedigree, begged for attention, while a Siamese sulked on its high perch, dreaming of the day when its owner will return to claim it. In another room, two Pekinese were yapping away, as if to inform us that they were here only temporarily.

Amina takes in any animal that is brought to her. She only charges owners who can pay for their pets and invites people who have the means to either adopt one of the strays or pay something for its upkeep at the shelter until prospective owners can be found. This is of course in no way compulsory, and she is grateful for any contribution.

Amina and Suzy's shelters are already almost full, however; Animal Friends, another association in the making, headed by Barbara Daber and Susie Nassar, are working the e-mail without respite, and those who have opened their houses have had their lives overtaken by animal friends. But more kind hearts are needed.

The population of cats and dogs is increasing by the day, as anyone can notice from the number of animals rummaging in the garbage, and the corpses lying in gutters, strewn across the Maadi Corniche, 6 October Bridge or the large avenues of Mohandessin. Without a policy providing for the systematic spaying and vaccinating of strays, the task of keeping these animals out of harm's way lies on those who can find it in their hearts to give a little time or money.

It is nevertheless clear that a desire to help others, cherish animals and care for nature is learned at home at a tender age. If a mother screams and throw stones at the sight of a cat or dog, her children will copy her. When a child is told that if he disobeys his mother will get the cat on the landing to scratch him, feelings of hatred will have been planted. Many people, ignorant of both child psychology and the ways of animals, do just that. This may be why feelings of compassion toward animals are more prevalent in affluent countries, where the young grow up with pets as a matter of course. It would be possible to teach Egyptians from every walk of life that, while they don't have to rescue or protect street animals, they should not engage in their systematic torture either. Islam and Christianity both encourage kindness to animals: while one tradition venerates St Francis of Assisi, the other reveres the Prophet Mohamed, who is said to have cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb a cat that had gone to sleep there. Children should be taught that, except in very rare cases, if animals are left alone they are not likely to harm anyone. A live and let live philosophy must be encouraged; the media could play an important part in disseminating new attitudes, which will help alleviate the kind of criticism visitors to Egypt invariably need to voice.

  For emergencies or to adopt a stray:

Amina Abaza: 012 316 29 12
Suzy Tawfiq: 010 56 70 915 |
Brookes Hospital, Dr Youssri: 010 545 00 22
Barbara Daber: 518 39 66

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