Monday, May 11, 2009
Definitely a Haven
Our world is a messy place although in many parts people tend to be able to hide the messiness better than in others. North America or Europe with its leash laws, humane societies, and animal rights activists almost makes one think that everything is more or less under control. It isn't, of course, since the very nature of life is change, but when North Americans and Europeans come to Egypt where normality is simply more chaotic than normality elsewhere, they are often rather shocked at the stray animals and working horses and donkeys. In some respects, Egypt is still living in the 19th century. The only working horses in New York City are the police horses or the carriage horses in Central Park, and there are plenty of interest groups that feel that it is inhumane to make horses work in any way and would like to see them abolished. My personal experience is that horses like working with people when the work is reasonable and the care is good, so that is not a great solution.
When I moved here in the late 80's finding a veterinarian to treat a cat in Alexandria was a major feat of detective work, and to be honest the first vet I ever found was pretty awful. Twenty years on things have changed quite a bit and we have a fairly good sampling of decent veterinary clinics in Cairo and Alexandria. Another change that I've seen has been an increase in the number of animal relief associations and animal shelters. Since these are a relatively new idea here, most of the population of Egypt is still trying to understand how they work. Keeping dogs and cats as pets is not that common in the general population, although it's often the case that a doorman will have a local cat or dog who knows where it can get a free meal in exchange for some guard work or ratcatching. These animals are not "pets" in the usual sense, but are more free-roaming partners who live without benefit of vaccinations or neutering and are subject to the stresses of random breeding. This is also the case for the farm dogs out here in the countryside. While this seems tough to people raised in orderly cities abroad, it is in fact the way of the world in less controlled environments.
I've visited quite a few animal shelters over the years and to be honest, most of them give me the willies. Quite a few end up housing large numbers of randomly "rescued" dogs and cats who have no hope of ever being placed in a comfortable environment and who are left to live in pens and cages that are often overcrowded, noisy, dirty and stressful. The low levels of funding for shelters have something to do with these conditions as do the wishes of the keepers to "save" these animals from life on the streets. I understand the problems of keeping large numbers of animals, having fifteen dogs myself (not by choice, believe me) and just visiting some of these places is enough to send me running for a calm place to collect my thoughts.
I have a group of high school students coming to stay at the farm for two weeks in June and was looking for some opportunities for volunteer work in the area, so I went to visit a few of the local shelters. One of them was eliminated immediately as I had some very real concerns for the safety of the students with the way that the dogs were kept. The tension level in the pens were quite sufficient that I could see fights breaking out quite easily. I went on to a new shelter primarily for cats and was quite delighted to find Animal Haven's new spaces. Noura el Daly had been working with her cats in Maadi for years but recently her sister offered her space out near our farms. A compound was built consisting of a series of rooms built around courtyards that afforded cats their choices of rooms in which to sleep and sunny spots for relaxation. The cats, and there are quite a lot of them, are not necessarily confined to one room and courtyard, but if they are sufficiently well-socialised, they can move among a choice of rooms, including one that has a ramp leading to a space on the roof.
There were more cats than I've seen in one place in a long, long time. Every possible colour and hair length was represented. Many of these cats are adult but rather than being frightened of humans and trying to escape attention, they sauntered over to purr against legs and offer heads for scratches and stroking. Dishes of food, rice with chicken, stood around for the cats to be able to eat at their leisure, and wooden benches covered in toweling, baskets, shelves and other interesting structures provided places for the cats to curl, sprawl, groom, and cuddle. The entire area was spotless and the attendants made a point of introducing us to their favourite inmates. The cats are neutered, vaccinated and available for adoption, but all too often people are wanting the cute factor of kittens and not interested in adult cats. I've had a lot of cats in my life and have had no problems adopting sympathetic adult cats. In fact, not having to put up with the crazy running around of kittens that almost inevitably leads to broken objects and torn curtains has been a real plus. One of our cats when we lived in Maadi was a totally blind female who wound herself around my daughter's legs just outside our doctor's office one afternoon. We called her Amelia and she presented us with four kittens as well in fairly short order. We were fortunate in being able to find homes for all the kittens and for Amelia as well, since we didn't think that it was fair to a blind cat for her to have to deal with a household with dogs as well.
Animal Haven isn't a dog shelter but they have a few dogs who have been left at the doorstep, so to speak. The dogs are baladi dogs, the street/desert/farm mutts that are ubiquitous here. They are also the smartest, most loyal, healthiest dogs that anyone could find and make the best possible watchdogs. I have two who patrol the farm every evening while my terriers find the best spots on the bed. The dogs are also given enough room, cleanliness, food and attention to make them delightful companions. I spoke to Noura after my visit suggesting that the students could come to help care for the animals, repair benches and baskets, and perhaps to do some rudimentary dog training to help make the dogs more adoptable. We'll see how things work out, but this is really a wonderful effort and hopefully more people will find their way out to adopt cats and the odd dog from Animal Haven.
copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani