Friday, December 11, 2020

Gone to The Dogs


I realise that I went to the dogs years ago. I have had over a dozen dogs at any given time since about 1997. That's a long time. At first we were a normal family, sort of. We started with one baladi dog in Alexandria, and when she vanished one day we collected a pair of sisters from Smouha Club. We stuck with two dogs for a while when we moved to Cairo, until my daughter and I went to Greece on a spring break, and we found Molly sitting in the snow on a mountain. From the face she looked like a Golden Retriever and from the butt she looked like a Corgi. We brought her home, telling my husband as we took her off the luggage carousel that we had another baladi dog, but a Greek one this time. Then came the Rat Terriers.

My husband had built an enormous grain discharge terminal in Alexandria that was wonderfully computerised. Because Alex can be pretty wet in the winter, he built special tunnels to keep his computer cables dry. The rats loved the tunnels and enjoyed filing down their teeth on the computer cables, so I was instructed to find a green solution to the rodent problem. I found American Rat Terriers, a small working breed (meaning they don't have to look like anything in particular) that specialised in hunting rodents and other vermin. We started with a pregnant female and a young male figuring that since they were totally unrelated, Bluto could work as a stud for both Terra and her daughters to be. The only problem was that she had three sons in her first litter so we had to get a couple more females. In no time at all, RatBusters (we registered the kennel) had an easy dozen dogs to add to the three already there. Some of them went to the grain terminal to work and some stayed in Maadi with me. When my husband died, I had a pack of six males in Alexandria and a pack of six females ready to go to Borg el Arab to the soy bean crushing plant there. And I still had some that stayed with me along with a variety of homeless hounds that wandered through.

My move to the area near Abu Sir to buy land for my farm was accompanied by at least a dozen dogs. I moved about ten of the Rat Terriers who were shortly joined by another six from the grain discharge terminal because my brother-in-law hated dogs. I had our old baladi dog, Ganja, a crippled Dalmation, the Corgi mix from Greece as well, and shortly thereafter I got a young Great Dane. Our next move to the farm was quite simple and was accomplished by donkey cart for the furniture. The dogs and I just walked the 80 meters from the door of the old garden to the new front door, as we had been doing ´very day over the previous 6 months. Once we'd moved into the new house on the farm, it was a matter of training staff to close doors so that the dogs wouldn't wander and terrify the neighbours.But not long after I'd moved to the farm, a pup arrived there that was going to change my life enormously.

I'm not sure how Finn arrived, but the first time I ever saw him he was standing in the baking tray that I used for dog kibble, eating as fast as he could, his normally curly tail stretched straight out in concentration. The dog pack was standing and sitting all around him, looking on with interest but no animosity, so I decided that he clearly was meant to be here and we accepted our fate. I called him Finn after Huckleberry Finn, as he seemed very assured of himself and was obviously adventurous. Finn was the archetypal baladi dog, sand yellow, short haired, curly tail, tipped ears, and a small bit of white on his toes, the end of his tail and a flash on his chest. What was not archetypal was his size. He was much taller than any of the local baladis, and I always wondered if he had a touch of Dane in him, as there were some Great Danes in the neighbourhood, occasionally consorting with the baladi females. There was nothing of the Dane features in his face however.  When he arrived, sometime around 2005 or 2006, the pack leadership was in the hands of Koheila, the Dalmation who had an intellect that made us decide that she was actually an extraterrestrial, and Terra, the first arrival and the ranking female in the Rat Terrier pack. Koheila was not a large dog, but she took it upon herself to order the others to go attend to the gate if anyone came, while she herself would come to me to announce the visitors. Terra was a tiny dog with a fierce personality who never left my side and could intimidate anyone who came to see me if she felt that something was not right. These two ladies trained Finn well.

Terra and Koheila were getting older. Terra died at 17 and Koheila at 14, but I had time to notice that they were in fact training Finn to take over leadership of the pack as they were aging. They spent a lot of time with him, possibly conversing...who knows? They were tougher on him than others when he made mistakes. And eventually he took over as pack leader. Koheila still did the announcements and Terra owned the pillow on the bed, but they sat back from the more physical interactions with the other dogs as they aged. If Finn was out of the garden for a while he would check in with the old ladies, licking them on the face and lying on his back before them. It was clear that they still wielded quite a lot of canine power and I was getting better at watching it all and understanding. At this point most of the visitors to the farm were coming to go horseback riding, and, while they might stay for a cup of tea, they weren't staying all day the way that people do now. As the old terriers died, new dogs came to the farm to take their places. Most of them were baladi dogs and most of the time they just appeared. We did take in a couple of adult Great Danes after Morgana died, but they never challenged Finn's leadership. The male, Zook, basically ignored him good naturedly. Mindy, the grey female, became Finn's special friend and consort. They were devoted to each other. All the time there were young dogs coming and old dogs leaving, and I gradually became more aware of what a great job Finn did of keeping everyone in line. When young dogs became too excited at the arrivals of friends, he would growl a bit to tell them to relax. 
One of the things that I discovered with Finn was that he would talk to me about things. It took me some time to learn to understand what he was trying to get across to me. He disapproved of any physical punishment of dogs, not that it was often used. One time when two of the younger dogs got into a tiff, and I swung a foot at them in frustration (missing them entirely I must say), I felt a pain in my gluteus maximus that was a nip from Finn. I was shocked and stood there staring at him. He stared back without any shame at all, making his point. Conversations with dogs, like conversations with horses, are often on a level that is almost a form of telepathy. Until Finn, I hadn't really had dogs that bothered to vocalise, and he had a remarkably wide range of sounds that he used to get information across. The dogs that have grown up in his pack are extremely vocal and talk to us all the time. JC, our baladi wolfdog, came during Finn's last years and Finn chose him to take over the alpha position with Calaypso who has a mix of mastiff and pitbull in her background.  At about six months, JC's wolfy side began to appear and he taught the pack to do some very reputable howls. They also talk to visitors that they know well. Just today a family arrived and announced to me that Calypso, JC's co-chief, had come up to their care and talked a streak as they were walking in. I've learned a lot from the pooches and will probably continue to do so.





copyright 2020 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, December 06, 2020

A Pandemic Project In The Neighbourhood

"Y’all will never believe what I have been doing during this quarantine/vacation. I’m not sure that I entirely do, but it is something that I am quite proud of. There are a lot of people in the equestrian world who know me even outside of Egypt, and in 2012 I was asked by a friend to check out a group who were said to be helping horses in Nazlet Semman. The group went by the rather odd name of Prince Fluffy Kareem, but I found a contact for them and I tried to arrange a trip to see where they were working and what they were doing. I was unsuccessful at the time and I told my friend that I was unable to meet with them or to get more information about their activities than was on their Facebook page at the time. If she wanted to donate to them, that was fine with me, but personally I felt a little bit uneasy not being able to contact and/or visit them personally. Subsequently, I was asked by other people about the same thing, and I had no more information to pass on than I had the first time, so I could only reiterate my concerns. As time went on, it was clear that the group was very successful in terms of collecting donations, if a bit mysterious. Sometime in the last few years PFK (as it is known in the interest of brevity) announced that it had moved its animals to my neighbourhood but I didn’t really know where, nor was I in any sort of rush to find out.

Imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, about the time the voluntary social distancing was first being put into operation, I got a call from the head of the Board of Trustees for PFK, which was registered as a charity in the UK under the supervision of the Charities' Commission. Apparently Marte, who had started the group about 8 to 10 years ago had, in the face of the oncoming viral pandemic and an audit by the Charities Commission, retired and moved back to Norway. With Marte gone, and Sherif’s English skills a bit dodgy to say the least, they needed some local staff to take care of things like the translation of receipts and so on. (In fact, Sherif is illiterate in both English and Arabic and could not even manage the receipts and such in Arabic.) She asked if I could help them find the right people since I live in the neighbourhood, but with the advantage of about twenty-five years of experience here. I admitted to being rather more than just a bit surprised, but I agreed to help them out, feeling that for a successful charity to fall on the rocks due to personnel changes would be a real tragedy.

In the past two weeks I have visited Boxland and Fluffylands 2 and 3, I’ve seen the horses and donkeys and I have worked to set up systems of feed deliveries for horses, donkeys, cats, and dogs, so that they can be easily monitored by the Board of Trustees in the UK, which makes it infinitely easier to handle the running of the rescue. We are putting in a proper bookkeeper/purchasing agent who will oversee the financial part of running PFK as per the requirements of the UK Charities Commission, which leaves Sherif free to look after horses. (In the end, Sherif proved to be completely uncooperative and we had to find an independent manager who could be trusted...which we did.) This setup process seems to be coming along very nicely. Naturally since many of the horses who have gone to PFK have been in very hazardous condition, not all of the inhabitants are in the greatest of shape, but there are a lot of horses who are in excellent condition, which is a testimony to some good care. One of the organizational tasks is the creation of a database with photos of the horses, medical histories, and origins of the horses, as well as their status as a foster, a patient, or a horse that PFK has bought.

To most PFK supporters, at times my name has been, more or less, the equivalent of the arch-nemesis of PFK. I am aware of that and as always can only respond that I was presented with a certain lack of transparency which made me hesitant. At this point, there is no longer any lack of transparency. The policies and staff being put into place will satisfy the needs of the Charities Commission who, due to PFK’s success, have requested much stricter monitoring of daily operations. At this point, I can comfortably recommend PFK as a worthwhile project for anyone to support."

This was the diplomatic Facebook story for how I spent part my pandemic spring, but the reality was not so easy or calm. The reality was that while Marte and Sherif may have started the charity with the best of intentions, I suspect that the influx of cash changed the priorities quickly. They started in 2011 in the summer before the revolution (I believe) with the purchase of a beaten up grey stallion to nurse back to health in the comfort of the stable where Marte kept a horse and where Sherif worked, and I suspect that not many people noticed them that winter. The fairly appalling name was given by a British woman who started a Facebook page for their effort unbeknownst to Marte, who initially was angered at the intrusion into her privacy. 

By the spring of 2011 there were stories in newspapers worldwide about the "starving horses of Giza" which were generating a lot of interest in the charity world. We had a number of international charities coming in to offer food for horses in Nazlet Semman, which has been home to a huge number of fairly terrible riding stables interspersed with a few decent ones since some time in the 70's and even before. PFK began with people sending tack, medication and equine paraphenalia in suitcases to be distributed to the more down and out stables in the hopes of improving the working lives of horses who generally had to carry their passengers in battered, broken saddles that injured the horses' backs. In the spring of 2012 I recall standing and talking to an Egyptian vet who was working with a charity under Princess Alia of Jordan while we watched people coming to a station near the Sphinx where a truck was parked with 50 kg bags of yellow corn that were being loaded into horse carriages. Yellow corn is mostly sugar and is truly not a feed of choice for starving horses, but most of this was going to end up being sold anyway. All along the efforts to feed the starving horses of Giza have had some serious nutritional issues. Many horse feeding stations bring green berseem clover, which is sort of like handing a starving horse a popsicle since it is 90% water. But it is easy to handle and better than nothing I suppose. The dried hay would be much better for the horses but for some reason this has never been used. PFK settled into a stable near the Sphinx and began doing clinics with some invited vets and farriers. This attracted quite a lot of attention through skillfully written Facebook posts. At the same time in Egypt, during the summer of 2012, a young Australian woman, Ashley Lotherington arrived in Egypt with a couple of suitcases full of supplies and tack for PFK. She saw an interesting business plan and opened a horrific alleged horse rescue, The Egypt Horse Project, which she milked for all the money that she could get while allowing horses to suffer in her stable. So there were two groups working in Nazlet Semman but while they were collecting donations like mad, it was incredibly difficult for anyone to visit and evaluate their work. About four years later, Lotherington moved back to Australia where she has since been charged for animal abuse and the like.

Sometime around the same period that TEHP moved out of Nazlet Semman and Ashley left, PFK told supporters that they were opening a space for retired horses south of Giza and there were rumours that it was in my neighbourhood, but I never really pursued the search for the location. Later there were rumours that Sherif and Marte had moved into the neighbourhood and that Sherif had bought land here. The latter I laughed off since the price of land in our area is outrageous, but it turned out to be true and as a matter of fact he had commissioned a 50 box stable with a house that the Board of Trustees was entirely unaware of. It is partly built but he still owes money on it. I also heard rumours that Sherif had a herd of dairy cattle as well. In the interest of peace, I let the rumours slide. But when the Board of Trustees called on me to help, I felt that I really should. After all, they had the financial resources to do the job that Marte and Sherif had been claiming to do for years, although it was clear to anyone living in Egypt that they were not doing it. They had made it impossible for anyone with an IP address in Egypt to see the Facebook page some years back, and of course any name of someone who had been in the least bit critical was also blocked from viewing. From time to time, however, friends abroad would send screen shots to keep people in Egypt up to date.
The month that I worked with them was fraught with tension and implied violence on the part of Sherif and his brother Abdelnabi, who were quite unwilling to see their golden goose removed. They had rented a nearby stable as a commercial venture while telling the donors that Sherif had to find an outside job because the charity was paying him so little. Of course the horses for the stable had come from PFK or from PFK funds, and the charity was paying for the feed for the stable as well as the rent for the stable in all probability. There was indeed a herd of water buffalo as well as sheep and goats being stabled on the land paid for by the charity and being fed by the charity. All of the care for these animals was being done by the workers that the charity was paying to care for  horses. The brothers were not keeping any sorts of accounts and were just dealing with large amounts of cash. Within a week of my going to help sort things out, it was clear that there was a lot of major corruption. The tactic of the Farag brothers was to threaten not to feed the horses or to turn them out, or later to threaten other things. When I called their bluff on this, knowing that they were not going to do it, they waited a week or so to ask us to provide money for feed, but when I insisted on proper accounting for purchases and shipping, it was clear that the real costs were only a fraction of what had been claimed previously.

With the assistance of the local authority, the brothers were pried away from the operations of the charity and a new manager was brought in to reorganise the work on the land rented by PFK to care for the horses and donkeys staying there. Within a month or two, the feed costs were about one quarter of what they had been claiming from the board before, and all the horses were actually gaining weight. They now have, thanks to the work of the new manager, well-organised and well-trained staff whose only job is to properly care for the animals on the land and any animals who might stop by needing medical care. The manager has also arranged for one of the best equine clinics in Egypt to handle the veterinary care for the horses who arrive at the gates needing assistance, since, other than one clinic down the road, there are no real veterinary clinics in the area to care for the horses and donkeys of carriage drivers, carters, and farmers who cannot afford private clinics. Having the horses at PFK in paddocks out of doors is a real advantage for those who need time to rest, eat, and recuperate.

At the end of my month I was able to step back and return to my own projects on my farm. This was a huge relief as PFK had been taking up almost all of my waking hours for the month. I still speak with the head of the Board of Directors regularly, but now they are generally just calls to chat, thankfully, and I am in contact with their manager frequently as we refer a lot of cases to them when Rural Wellness Initiative's outpatient treatment won't do the job. But I have made it clear to everyone in the area that I have not become a part of PFK, nor will I in the future. I have plenty of work to do on my own. I am not getting any money from PFK, nor do I want any. Everything I did was to prevent the waste of a good group that, with proper management, can do excellent work for animals.

copyright 2020 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani