George Bernard Shaw once said “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them, that's the essence of inhumanity.” I am often asked what led me into animal rights and activism. The truth is there’s not just one easy answer. I cannot pinpoint a time in my life where I said, “Now is when I want to work towards making the lives of animals better.” How much easier it would have been if the answer were that simple.
I grew up around animals. My family’s first dog was a border collie mix named Zoe. She was everything a little girl could hope for in a family pet. Zoe became a constant companion for my sister and I through many big changes in our lives; from moving continents to learning how to say goodbye to a loved one. You could perhaps say that it was Zoe that engrained in both of us an urge to show kindness to animals.
I first moved to Cairo five years ago full of wonder and not really sure what it was I hoped to achieve in Egypt. My first impressions reflected those of many foreigners who move here: in awe of a culture that was so unfamiliar to me and in shock with many of the things I witnessed. I will never forget the first time that I saw a donkey cart running alongside the cars in the streets or the first pick-up truck full of cows travelling along the Ring Road. Animal rights is a relatively new term in Egypt and my first lesson was learning how to push my judgments and pre-conceived notions of acceptable animal care to the side. I had grown up in a different society and was privy to learning about the love and adoration a pet can offer, and at first, it was difficult for me to ignore the scenes of animal abandonment and/or cruelty prevalent in Egypt.
The building across from where I first lived housed a dog on the roof. I remember my sister and I standing in our bedroom, looking through our window at the boxer puppy tied up across the street with no shade or water. It wasn’t long before the puppy was gone, presumably sold or simply abandoned in the streets. It’s a scenario that is repeated far too often. The feeling of helplessness in knowing that there was very little that I could do to help kick-started in me a desire to make changes.
So I began thinking that while I’m only a guest in Egypt, how could I help?
Initially, my work helping animals centered mainly around the ones I could help directly. I began leasing a horse, named Latifa. She had been living a hard life in the pyramids area of Giza, forced to carry around people for hours on end, day after day, in the unforgiving desert heat. She was thin, and mentally a wreck. With the help of the stable owners we took Latifa in, and began the process of rehabilitating her back to a normal horse. Although the progress was slow, every accomplishment was more rewarding than anything I had ever felt. I will always remember the first time Latifa was able to stand next to you quietly and know genuine human kindness and no fear. Through time, patience and a desire to better the life of an animal, I had saved her. Looking back now, I realize that Latifa saved me as much as I had her.
In 2009, I met my fiancé Karim. Fast-forward one year, and together we made the move from Cairo to Hurghada. My passion for animal activism has only been growing these last few years, and in turn has transferred itself to Karim. He grew up in a fairly typical Egyptian family; the concept of having a pet in the house was a foreign one to him. Together we rescued a dog in the Red Sea resort town and since then he has been learning every day what it means to have an animal friend.
Owning a dog is not just about having a guard animal; the true connection that is experienced between dog and owner is one that words simply cannot describe. Knowing that you have a friend waiting anxiously for your arrival is comforting after a long day’s work. It is unconditional love that is only fostered through understanding and kindness. Karim has developed this compassion over the years, and in turn has begun spreading this compassion to those around him.
This process awakened a passion within me and in December of 2010, I began working with the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA). ESMA is a non-profit animal rescue shelter based in the heart of Egypt, the capital city Cairo. It was founded by a few dedicated Egyptians and expatriates in response to mass shootings of dogs and cats in 2007, and has been fighting for the rights of animals in Egypt ever since. I knew that it was a cause I wanted to help, but was faced with the problem of distance. I resigned to doing what I could from Hurghada, and initially my work focused around sending out media updates, and press releases to media organizations throughout the world.
When the revolution in Egypt erupted, it was only a matter of time before the animal victims became evident. With so many people focusing on rebuilding the country politically, I focused much of my efforts towards aiding the crisis of the starving pyramid horses. ESMA launched a feed campaign which to begin with was not garnering much attention at all. Myself, along with other dedicated women primarily based in the UK, sent out tens of press releases and media blasts to every online magazine or print publication that would listen. Our efforts paid off and within a few weeks what was originally a localized problem grabbed the attention of media outlets worldwide. Donation campaigns were established and ESMA began receiving funding from individuals and other animal rights organizations from around the globe. The first few months of the feed campaigns saved the lives of hundreds of horses and gave animal rights activists in Egypt a real voice that was being heard.
Since then, ESMA and other similar organizations such as the Egyptian Society for Animal Friends (ESAF) have seen their support flourishing. In turn, I have learned that with real time and dedication one individual can make a difference. In Hurghada, I have been working with a dedicated group of women who have been trying to launch an educational campaign to take to the streets. Our goal is to help Egyptians understand that giving an animal love, rather than abuse, will give you a much greater reward in the long run. While as a Westerner these are concepts that I take for granted, many Egyptians are genuinely unaware of how to care for an animal or how a furry companion can enrich your life. It starts with small steps; seeing little children throwing stones at a dog in the streets and stopping to patiently explain that these dogs will not get aggressive without reason. Or passing a donkey that is pulling a load far too heavy, and gently showing the owner that reducing the payload can add years to the donkey’s life, thereby enabling more work productivity in the long run. These simple concepts are the ones that will help change the course of animal rights in Egypt and ultimately pave the road for a better future.
Recently, animal rights activists in Egypt were given great news. The ESAF, together with the General Organisation of Veterinary Services (GOVS) and other animal rights organizations, have launched what is known as a TNR program. The Trap, Neuter, Release program is intended to help ease the over-population of strays roaming throughout the streets in Cairo. Animals are rounded up by volunteers and taken to shelters, where vets will give the animals a check-up to ensure that they do not have any life threatening illnesses or diseases that may complicate the surgery procedure. All animals are then bathed in anti-parasitic shampoo, given their rabies vaccination, and neutered or spayed in a safe and healthy environment. The animals are then left in the shelter for a few days to recover from the surgery, and released back on the streets. This is intended to hopefully curb the over-population we see every day, and eventually decrease or completely put an end to the inhumane poisoning and shooting campaigns that have long been the norm for dealing with strays in the country. This truly was a battle won for animal rights activists.
I know that there is a lot of work left to do in Egypt and indeed the rest of the world when it comes to animal rights. As a guest in this country, I'm not trying to change it into my own mold; however, if there's one thing I can do to make a difference I will rise to the occasion. I have great hopes for the future of animal welfare in Egypt as long as organizations like ESMA and ESAF continue to exist and make headway in the progress of animal rights. And as long as there are always volunteers out there ready and willing to donate their time, we will see an Egypt full of compassion for our animal friends. I have faith, Inshallah.