The truth about dogs
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From top: one of SPARE's sheltered dogs; a dalmation at the indoor kennel; Lucy, a lucky baladi; Taking a daily walk; The trained Malinois; Abaza with her dogs
The killing of stray animals -- a 20- year-old practice in Egypt -- made the headlines this month when, in response to animal rights organisations exposing the use of "internationally banned methods", a presidential decree demanded an official report on the matter. After the agriculture minister was dispatched to an animal rights conference in Paris, Akhbar Al-Yom ran a half-page picture of a pregnant dog shot dead on the Pyramids Road, accompanied by religious edicts commanding the faithful to treat animals mercifully. Already, in cyberspace, foreigners and Egyptians alike had been waging a campaign against the use of poison, among other brutalities.
For her part Amina Abaza, founding director of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE), says most animal care facilities, many of which were first established in the 1940s, have long since fallen into the wrong hands and became less concerned with protecting animals than procuring funds. Indeed SPARE is one of a handful of institutions which, working from its shelter in Saqqara, not only offers free healthcare to stray and farm animals but provides for approximately 105 dogs and 45 cats at a time, until they are adopted: almost always by foreigners, since Egyptians tend to keep only thoroughbreds as pets. Otherwise, on condition that the neighbours consent to it, they are returned to where they were first found. "If people phone to report on a stray animal," she says, "we capture it, neuter, vaccinate and keep it until we find a home for it." Nor are people always sympathetic: many criticise SPARE for protecting animals in a country where destitution is widespread and many classes of humans -- orphans, for example -- require the same resources; only the peasants are grateful when their animals' lives are saved. But Abaza eloquently summarises the counter- argument: "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."
Shooting or poisoning cats and dogs at random, Abaza goes on to explain, is in fact counter-intuitive; the effective way to cut down numbers is to cut short the reproductive cycle by castrating or spaying as the case may be: "kill off the entire dog population of a neighbourhood, for example, and even a single couple will reproduce significantly more, the way humans do in wartime." Egyptian cats and dogs have their own survival mechanisms, she went on to explain: reaching puberty at six months, they will start mating immediately, and within six months of the birth the cycle will be repeated with an average of six new individuals in addition to the mother who gave birth to them. Neutering is the only way out of this vicious circle: "If [the Agriculture Ministry's] veterinary departments all over Egypt collaborated with us, neutering and vaccinating instead of importing Strychnine, the poison used to kill stray animals, then we would follow the lead of India and Kenya that were able to get rid of stray cats and dogs within five years. For 20 years now poisoning has proven ineffective, so why do they refuse to cooperate?" When SPARE recently submitted their request to the Ministry of Agriculture, they promised to take SPARE's suggestions into consideration. Abdallah Badr, the undersecretary of the Giza veterinary department, officially stated that during the 2004 Al-Azhar University conference on animal wealth in Islam, his department was ready to cooperate with animal rights NGOs like SPARE but, "they have not contacted us once."
Badr explained that for 50 years now the 26 departments have been aiming at "combating" stray animals, defined as "unattended to, unleashed or unlicensed", when the government realised they were causing costly damage, especially in terms of commutable disease; not to mention their economic burden that costs an average of $60 per human vaccination. What Badr fails to account for is the lack of an effective "combat" strategy, as it were. What combating officially consists of, short of shooting the animals and gathering up the carcasses, is scattering poisoned meat on the streets and gathering up the remains. In practice, shot animals are often left to fester in public space, and the Strychnine diluted to save money, with the result that those animals that consume the meat die much more slowly and in agony. There are no records of any kind; and even though Badr realises there are three international combat standards -- "catch, neuter, release" -- "how do I catch the same animal every year to vaccinate it? People have been attacked on their way to dawn prayers; and their neighbours are understandably concerned. What to do then?" Yet veterinary Mohamed Heggab insists that there are ways of marking a vaccinated animal. "There are two kinds of rabies vaccine," he goes on: "the locally produced one, effective for a year; and the imported one, effective for three years. They cost LE10 and LE16, respectively, so the difference in price is not huge. Now if we coordinate with over 10 faculties of veterinary medicine, where students in their third year are required to perform neutering operations, we will have a national plan -- a win-win situation."
For her part, Shahira El-Khadem, co-founder of Animal Haven, underlined the fact that the average life span of a street animal is no more than four years: "In New Delhi, they captured 70,000 stray animals, bringing rabies to an end without having to kill one." El-Khadem's animal shelter, established in 2004 in Maadi, is home to some 250 cats and five dogs. It has saved many stray cats which, placed in plastic bags, are routinely hung on trees or left by rubbish bins to die. "Cruelty," she says, "is the only word for it." Apartment building residents and even sporting clubs also poison stray animals rather than contacting a capable party to put an end to their problems. The wrath of activists did not peak until 11 May, however, when the Internet was flooded with the picture published by Akhbar Al-Yom ; a string of similar sightings all over Cairo gave way to an online petition: "Stop the mass slaughtering of street dogs in Egypt". Addressing government officials, it was signed by 1,800 people. According to Dina Zulfiqar, the petition organiser, "our demands were neglected by the media but still, we continued to post and fax our petitions on a daily basis." And it worked, testifying to the power of the individual: each single signature made a difference; the response of the government, she believes, is but only the beginning. "We have yet to address a few important points," Zulfiqar added, "including a draft law submitted for approval three years ago and the proposed partnership between the public and civil sectors."
Those to whom mercy is divisible may do well to remember that, according to the World Health Organisation, dog rabies, which is fatal to humans, remains endemic in most African and Asian countries; it causes an estimated 55,000 deaths annually, 44 per cent of which occur in Africa; most of the victims are children. Koshari vendor Abdel-Aziz, serving Egypt's national dish on Galaa Street, thought it was haram (religiously forbidden) to kill an animal, which in Islamic tradition is considered a soul. Reflecting such sentiments -- profusely expressed in hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) -- acts of kindness to animals still abound on the street: a traffic policeman will stop the cars to save a passing cat; a woman feeds the stray animals of her local park on a daily basis...
It is something Mariam El-Gammal, a human resources specialist, witnessed in person. The problem, she believes, is food waste, on which stray animals thrive: "we are projecting our own problems on another, voiceless party. Take my [middle class] neighbourhood of Abbas Al-Aqqad Street, in Nasr City." There, she says, so many restaurants leave behind so much waste, attracting mice and insects, that one can only exclaim, "thank God for stray cats! Without them, we'd be swept by a plague". El-Gammal's own pet was a stray, and she is well aware that, even without poisoning and bullets, few creatures like her own could survive the streets, what with speeding vehicles and human cruelty: "an ironic end to the Pharaohs' gods." Tamer Abdel-Aziz, a resident in the lower middle class neighbourhood of Bulaq Abul-Ela neighbour, testifies that the area has witnessed many people barely surviving dog attacks: "I think the government is doing the right thing: to put the safety of the citizen first. Besides, say you hit a stray cat while driving, would you stop and rescue it, or even bury it? The chances are you would just drive on, leaving it behind until it starts to smell, and we are the ones who suffer."
"Take the health hazards for example, they scatter poisoned meat on the street, hence poor people, street children, garbage collectors as well as other people's pets are prone to eat this meat," argued Abaza, wondering if we could ever "know the casualties of the haphazard throwing of poisoned meat," insisting that "we will not benefit much from killing all the stray dogs for we are a desert country and by disturbing the ecosystem instead of dogs we'd have stray wolves."
"I just have one final question," she says. "How is killing and torture relevant to class issues? Doesn't it simply add to poverty and brutality?"