Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

 Revolutions are interesting things. While they can be quite exciting, frightening, exhilarating, and hopeful at the beginning, as we saw in 2011, they tend to drag on as a society tries to readjust and recalibrate...a process that is draining, frustrating, and often very boring. When it became quite apparent that the uprising in Egypt in 2011 was having a severely adverse effect on tourism which had been the main source of income for my staff at the farm, I began looking around for ways to keep a staff that was used to escorting tourists around our area busy with new activities. One of the things that I did was to sign some of my grooms up for a donkey care course that was being given by The Society for The Protection Of Donkeys and Mules In Egypt (a local branch of the international Donkey Sanctuary). They weren't thrilled at first since donkey care is held in much lower esteem here than horse care, but they came back from their classes lit up with the new skills and ideas that they were being taught. It was terrific to see the eyes open again after months of mind-numbing boredom. The routines of caring for horses and gardens at the farm really wasn't very stimulating.

One of the things that happened in 2011 was a number of newpaper articles here and abroad bemoaning the fact that the horses at the pyramids in Giza, horses who have always been a source of concern and dismay to visiting horsemen as well as the local variety because even in "good" times they've always been abused, were "starving" to death due to a lack of income for tourism. The situation was infinitely more complex than that, but local and international charities rushed out there to help the starving horses of Giza by distributing large bags of corn to people who often showed up with well-fed horses who I even saw being fed pastry as the owners waited to get their corn. Not only is corn NOT a good feed for starving horses having way too much simple sugars, but the wrong people for the most part were getting the corn, parceling out the grain into smaller bags and selling it in the markets at a very nice price. Most of it was not going to starving horses but no one was sticking around to find out.

Into this fertile ground fell some visitors to Egypt who realised that animal rescue was becoming a growth industry. Two separate young women set up "horse rescues" in Nazlet Semman soliciting funds through Facebook accounts to care for horses in Egypt during late 2011 and early 2012. Both of these charities touched the soft spots of animal lovers all over the world and collected significant funding, mostly from abroad, to care for the Giza horses, but unfortunately neither of them are either registered charities in Egypt and neither of them are precisely transparent in their financial dealings, leading one of them, the more successful, to block their page (Prince Fluffy Kareem) locally, meaning that anyone using Facebook from Egypt cannot even access their page. After having some problems with the Egyptian authorities over the fact that they are an unregistered charity, they opted to become invisible in Egypt. While there are questions about some treatments and account transparency, in their favour, they do help to feed the horses of at least some of the stables in Giza. The other charity, The Egypt Horse Project, has not done so well with its track record of care here and seems to be undergoing a metamorphosis of some sort lately. It is too early to see what is really happening and they have their own very serious issues of accountability.

About a year ago, having watched all the hullabaloo over the horses in Giza, I decided that the knowledge gained by my staff with the Donkey Sanctuary vets should be put to use in our neighbourhood to benefit the farmers. Before the revolution there had been vets employed by the Ministry of Agriculture who would travel around the countryside giving bird flu innoculations to the flocks of small farmers, giving vaccinations for cows, sheep, buffalo and goats to prevent brucellosis (a disease that can pass on infection through milk to humans), Foot and Mouth disease, Rift Valley Fever and a fairly intimidating array of other diseases, both zoonotic and veterinary. In an emergency, the farmers could call one of these vets to come and treat a sick or injured animal, who often represented a huge investment and was the major producer of disposable income for the family.

Since 2011, frankly, most of these vets have not been seen and I was concerned that the situation for the farmers was becoming much worse than that of the tourism horses in Giza, so I contacted a local vet who was working with and Egyptian animal charity, Egyptian Society of Animal Friends, and he and I began finding a way to help the farm animals in our neighbourhood without cost to the farmers. We started a Facebook page called the Rural Wellness Initiative Egypt to tell people about the work and to invite people to learn more about rural Egypt. At first ESAF helped to sponsor the work with the donation of the vet's time, but when he got a job at The Brooke, we had to find a new vet to work with us, which happily we were able to do. Our focus has always been on preventative maintenence such as worming, hoof care, feeding instruction (we weigh donkeys and let farmers know when they gain and lose weight so that they can learn to feed the proper amounts), and wound care.

It isn't flashy and the necessary medications have for the most part been bought by myself and a neighbour. We registered the charity here in Egypt this fall and have managed to pick up a corporate sponsor for our work to relieve the financial pressure on myself and the neighbour, so we've been very happy. Our vet is paid on a daily basis, but the work itself is done by volunteers, mostly my staff who have become extremely proficient in the technical support part of veterinary work, learning how to clear the blocked tear ducts of donkeys and horses, and being trained in basic dental work by the Donkey Sanctuary. We aren't doing the required government inoculations as we don't want to step on bureaucratic toes, but we would like to expand to do rabies shots for the farm dogs. We go out weekly with our donkey cart to one of five treatment stations where the farmers can bring their animals for treatment and the farmers know that they can come to the farm for treatment if needed. If it is something other than a hoof trim or wound care, we call in a vet immediately. Happily, there are vets in the area who are willing to help.

 Yesterday was one of our usual treatment visits to a small village not far from the farm. We treated donkeys, water buffalo, cows, a horse, and lots of poultry, rabbits and goats, as the women take care of those animals at home while the men are working in the fields. It was a fairly busy clinic but nothing overwhelming, and after lunch my staff asked to sit down with me for a discussion. What I heard from them initially knocked me off my feet, but on reflection it is sad but not surprising. Apparently farmers who don't read local papers or visit Giza ever are not unaware of the business aspects of animal rescue and they had been asking some rather pointed and at time quite rude questions about how much money my staff were making from this work. Since we don't charge for our work, I was initially puzzled but the questions were in fact aimed at the idea that no one helps other people without profiting from it, so there must be some form of profit for myself and my staff. Incorrect, but in this very profit-driven world the logic is undeniable.

Since the people that we are working with are the friends, neighbours and families of my staff, these questions and insinuations were very hurtful. One of the things that had pleased me so much about this charity work was the fact that it had given my staff a sense of pride in their work and a community spirit that they could help others. It has opened them up to a joy of learning, an appreciation of intellectual growth and a curiosity about animal care where there was simply rote training before. We are often joined by visitors on our clinic days, visiting vets and vet students, photographers and filmmakers wanting to document village life, and adults and children from our expat community who want to help, so their knowledge of other cultures and habits is increasing dramatically. Next week we have two Italian farriers and an Italian vet coming to help out and to give classes to improve the hoof care knowledge for my staff and local farriers. We have no farrier schools here in Egypt, so this is their only real chance to learn.

We were all quite depressed after yesterday's conversation about the incorrect assumptions of the villagers regarding the financing of our project. I value my staff greatly and the fact that this work could be causing them problems is troubling. I'm not sure how we will handle it but I truly am extremely irritated at all the faux animal rescues that are giving charitable work a bad name. I knew that there was a good reason that I've always referred to my farm as a retirement home for nice horses and dogs rather than a "rescue", even though friends and family laugh at me and tell me to call it what it really is. But if an "animal rescue" is a way to make money by pretending to help animals, I can't call it that. A major part of our work at RWI is educational, trying to make the farmers better animal keepers because healthy animals help to keep the families healthy. It is a sad puzzle.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani