As Sally Yassin raced across early morning Cairo with four bedraggled dogs yapping in her car, she realised the toll animal rescue activities were taking on her life.
It was 6:30am when school teacher Yassin woke up and found a Facebook alert about a poisoned dog. She quickly got dressed, left her home in Tagammu and set off to track it down.
Finding the stray lying on a street, she drove him to a nearby veterinary hospital. They refused to admit him because he was a street dog, instead hooking him up to an intravenous drip while he lay in Yassin’s car.
Crossing the street to the pharmacy to fetch medicine requested by the hospital staff, she passed two boys dragging a puppy by a rope. They told her they planned to sell him to a veterinary school and so she offered to buy the dog herself. Deal done, she walked back to her car with her new charge, only to come across a couple of boys beating two other puppies. She grabbed her dog leash and wielded it like a weapon to scare the youngsters off, then carried yet more animals to her car.
“I ended up doing three rescues at the same time,” Yassin recalls. “I went out to rescue one dog, and found myself going home with four.”
Yassin, a lifelong animal lover, began rescuing animals off the streets 18 months ago. Her first case, Fathi, was a paralysed dog left abandoned in the attic of an apartment building covered in his own filth. She took Fathi to three vets and was repeatedly advised to put him down.
“Three months later he made a full recovery and his pack came and called him and he went with them,” remembers Yassin. “It was my first and biggest case.”
Life isn’t easy for Egypt’s animal rescuers. The streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities are overflowing with stray animals, many — if not all of them — abused.
“I’ve reached a point where I can’t go out in the street without returning home with a rescue,” says Laila Hamdy Fayek, who’s been involved in animal rescue since 2013.
Egypt has animal shelters, but they’re often overloaded with cases and lack both the space and money to take more in. This leaves independent rescuers like Yassin and Fayek to fill the gap.
Rescuer Sally Yassin
Many of the cats and dogs on Egypt’s streets are called "baladi" — a word for a native Egyptian breed. Looked down on by many Egyptians, who consider them dirty, useless and diseased, many of them are badly mistreated while on the street.
“When I became involved in animal rescue, I started realising that not only do people not want baladi dogs in their homes, but they also abuse them,” says Fayek. “You don’t have to feed them or give them water or take them in your home. All you have to do is just leave them alone.”
But rarely are these animals left alone. The stories of abuse make even hardened rescuers like Fayek balk. “Every time I think this is the worst case of abuse I’ve seen, we find a case that’s even more tragic,” she says.
Some of the strays get hit by cars while living on the street, or are beaten with sticks by locals. Sometimes people tie ropes around their necks and drag them through the street. There have been cases of dogs being sprayed with pepper spray. Lately, says Fayek, people have begun throwing acid at stray dogs and cats. Some are badly dehydrated or have serious skin diseases. Others are poisoned by locals who want rid of them.
Each rescuer has countless heartbreaking stories of dogs they’ve rescued. Take Dodge, a baladi dog, who was thrown from the fifth floor of an apartment building, sustaining multiple injuries. Or maybe Anubus, a 10-year-old baladi who had his snout cut off by someone on the street. Then there’s Batout, another baladi, who was tied up to a tree and beaten until his leg broke.
Many of the Egyptian dogs end up being called Cleopatra or Cleo, after the famed 1st century BC pharaoh. But the most famous Cleopatra of all is Mama Cleo. Because even in a country rife with animal abuse, the case of Mama Cleo hit a nerve with many Egyptians as well as animal lovers overseas. An Egyptian baladi, Mama Cleo lived in Alexandria and had a litter of puppies. One of the residents in the area where she lived beat her puppies to death. A photo of Mama Cleo sitting forlorn next to her dead puppies went viral online.
But baladi dogs and cats aren’t the only ones suffering. Foreign breeds of dogs, like German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers, are sometimes found on the streets after their owners abandon them.
“Many people buy animals for the wrong reasons,” says Fayek. “They want to show off or they want to get a foreign breed for their children. Or they like puppies but don’t want them anymore when they mature or get sick, or they complain that the dog barks or pees.”
Fayek’s first rescue was of an Egyptian baladi dog whose 38-year-old owner died suddenly of a heart attack. The owner’s family wanted to get rid of the dog and put him back on the street.
“I took him in and he ended up staying with me for five months,” says Fayek.
Because Egyptian independent rescuers work informally, they often rely on the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook to do their work. Once a stray animal is found, an activist will post a photo along with the details of its plight and its location.
“The first step is to get the dog off the street,” explains Fayek. “The second step is to try and figure out where to put the dog once he’s rescued.”
This is a tricky part for most Egyptian rescuers, because most shelters are already packed. So, instead they look for families willing to adopt the animals and give them a permanent home.
“But most of the dogs we rescue are baladi dogs and Egyptians don’t like to adopt baladi,” says Fayek, whose pleas for Egyptians to adopt baladi dogs have fallen mostly on deaf ears. “It’s even more difficult if the dog is wounded or injured in some way, which is often the case with rescues.”
So, rescuers begin looking for a home to temporarily foster the rescue, or a clinic where the animal can board until they find a home. But this carries a financial burden.
“Once we find a place for the case to board we have to start gathering money to cover the expenses, and medical treatment,” says Fayek. “When I started, I used to spend from my own pocket. But the prices are crazy. One dog can cost you EGP 100 for boarding only, not including treatment.”
Yassin, with the financial help of friends, opened a dog kennel with more than 40 berths, where she often puts her rescues and arranges for their medical treatment until they find an adoption or, as the rescuers call it, a “forever home.”
Unwanted in Egypt, often the only solution is to find homes for their cases overseas, particularly Canada or the US. From December 2013 till April 2016, Fayek has sent 165 rescues to homes abroad.
Before sending the animals abroad, rescuers have to first find a foreign rescue group that will shadow the adoption. Then money has to be raised to buy flight tickets for the animals and a crate for it to be held during the journey. The animals then have to be prepped: there are import requirements, airline regulations and quarantine timelines that have to be adhered to. The animals must also be micro-chipped and fully vaccinated before being accepted abroad.
European regulations require that a blood sample is taken from the animal, after they are given a rabies shot, sent overseas for analysis. The animal is then allowed into Europe no less then three months after the blood was drawn.
“That’s a very long time to have a case and you get a lot of pressure from the people who agreed to temporarily foster the animal in Egypt,” says Fayek.
That’s why many Egyptian rescuers prefer to send their cases to the US or Canada where the procedures are more lenient and animals can enter only one month after they get the rabies shot.
Animals are not allowed to board a plane without an individual accompanying them. Because rescuers cannot hop on the plane every time they are sending a case overseas, they have to find a “flight parent” — an individual traveling from Egypt to the destination country. Rescuers then meet the flight parents at the airport, where they will take the animals with them, usually as excess luggage and not cargo. The price of the tickets depends on the destination. Egyptian rescuers have to raise approximately $150 for Europe and a minimum of $350 for Canada. But the prices change depending on the weight of the dog and the crate.
“Some people think, why spend this money on a dog or why not treat the dog here?” says Fayek. “But if you pay this money, you know you sent a soul to live happily for the rest of their life. But if you keep him in Egypt in a shelter, he will take a place of another animal, or in the street he will be hit by a car, and you will end up spending much more money for treatment.”
Once the case arrives at the destination, they are picked up by volunteers from the rescue group and will head to foster homes temporarily until they are adopted.
Rescuer Laila Fayek
For this process to go smoothly, it requires a massive amount of networking by rescuers. Fayek says that she now sleeps during the day because she has to pull all-nighters in order to be able to network with rescue groups in the US and Canada.
The first case she sent overseas was Polo, a Golden Retriever, who was living with a family in Egypt until he was beaten with a garden rake, causing paralysis in the rear end. The family decided to put him in a shelter.
“I was startled,” says Fayek. “This was the first time I hear of someone having a dog at home and putting them in a shelter. I felt bad for him.”
She began sending countless e-mails to foreign rescue groups that deal with special needs dogs.
Some responded, some didn’t. Finally, she found Golden Retriever Rescue, Education, and Training (GRREAT), a US-based NGO that finds homes for stray or unwanted dogs of that breed.
“In all honesty, we thought it was a scam looking for money, so we ignored the plea,” says Scott Daniels, a board member of GRREAT. “[But] Laila was persistent and contacted us again the following month.”
GRREAT decided to take on Polo and Daniels and his wife Kelly, who live in Delaware, USA, made the four-hour trip to meet Polo when he arrived at JFK Airport in New York.
“We have [since] assisted and taken in six Goldens from Laila to date, and most with some health issue,” says Daniels.
The Daniels also ended up giving a home to the famous Mama Cleo after they heard about her story.
“She is now in our home with us and means the world to me,” says Daniels. “I know Laila is so at peace knowing her angel is with us and safe for the rest of her life.”
But peace is something Egyptian animal rescuers rarely get. Although happy endings keep them going, Egypt’s streets are still rife with abused and battered animals. Fayek, says that on any given day she has 10 open cases.
The situation is no different for other rescuers. In the past month, Yassin has 43 dog rescues boarding across clinics in Cairo. It consumes her life, she says. The night before she was at the vet’s clinic until 4am with one of her rescues. In fact, she spends most her days taking care of her dogs. She visits her small kennel early in the morning every day where she administers medicine to her sick or injured dogs, takes the dogs out for walks and takes photos of her rescues so she can post them online in order to find them adopters. After her work in the kennel is done, at five or six in the evening, she will make a round visiting the rescues she has placed in foster homes to ensure they are well.
“These are the normal days. But they are very rare,” laughs Yassin. “Most of the time there are critical cases, so you find yourself running with your cases between the kennel and the clinic. I have learned to hook my rescues with an IV. I’ve learned to give injections. I’ve learned to be able tell the difference between the various skin diseases the dogs have.”
Yassin, who lives in a studio above her parents’ home, also keeps many of the strays she has there. Five dogs and five cats live with her at the moment.
“I also have a blind dog and a cat hidden in the attic,” she laughs.
Although her family have gradually become supportive of her work, she finds that she sometimes has to hide cases so as not to make them angry.
“The blind cat will be going to Ireland soon,” says Yassin.
Yassin also does ground rescue, which could take hours because the animals are so abused they have become terrified of all humans.
“One rescue took six hours, just so the dog is relaxed enough for me to approach him,” she remembers. “Unless the dog feels comfortable with us, then there is no rescue.”
Another time, it took her two hours to rescue a dog and her puppies, but she found herself stuck with them in her car for eight hours because she couldn’t find a place to temporarily put them until she found an adoption.
Time and money are not the only obstacles faced by rescuers in Egypt. Singer Dima Nagy, who has been a rescuer for 18 months, says that she found herself in several tough situations while trying to rescue an animal.
“When you are a known rescuer, your number is with pretty much everyone,” says Nagy. “Sometimes there are fake cases. Sometimes people claim they want to adopt one of my rescues and I find out that they only want to meet girls, so are just pretending.”
A few weeks ago, Nagy went out at 4am to rescue a poisoned dog. After she found the case, she went to the pharmacy to buy some syringes to give the dog a quick anti-poison injection.
“When I returned, I found police standing next to my car,” says Nagy. “I had a bag full of syringes. It was very easy for them to think that I am the one who is taking these drugs.”
After taking the dog she rescued to the clinic for treatment, she had to go the police station to be questioned.
Rescuer Dima Nagy
Often while doing ground rescue, Nagy has to face mockery from locals in the street. Once, while trying to catch a dog who was maimed with acid, Nagy and her colleagues were heckled by over 200 locals watching from a nearby café.
But life isn’t all doom and gloom for the rescuers. Once the animal is rescued and goes to their forever home, it pushes them to continue. Lucky, an Egyptian baladi saved by rescuer Marwa El-Gebaly, found a home with theatre professor Domenick Scudera in Pennsylvania in the US. El-Gebaly, who has been rescuing stray animals for six years, says he was one of the worst cases she’s seen. He was hit by a car, paralysed, covered in mange, an inflammatory disease common in dogs, and caked in dirt and filth.
With the help of Fayek, El-Gebaly found him a home in the US through an American NGO, Special Needs Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation (SNAAR). His back legs had to be amputated because they were so badly mangled and he now has a wheeled cart to help him walk.
“Lucky is very unique. He can walk, unaided and without a cart, by balancing on his remaining legs,” says Scudera. “He is one of the most amazing dogs in the world. I was attracted to him because he is such an inspiration of endurance and positivity.”
Scudera hopes that one day Lucky will be a certified therapy dog to help people with medical problems.
Another rescue, Ms Cleopatra, was adopted by Kimberley Bailey in Ontario, Canada. Ms Cleopatra was rescued by Fayek when she was a five-month-old puppy. She was being strangled when Fayek took her and rehomed her with Bailey.
“They are magnificent survivors,” says Bailey about Egyptian baladI dogs. “To watch Cleo walk, sit, just be, she has an incredible noble look that she would have deserved so many years ago, and now has that pride again.”
Cleo is loved now. She and two other dogs led the wedding procession of Bailey’s daughter when she got married.
Seeing their rescues safe in loving homes after years of abuse on the street is heartwarming to the Egyptian rescuers. Sometimes the rescuers turn their homes into temporary shelters for their rescues before they travel and they end up getting attached to them. So, the moment they say goodbye is both sweet and sour.
“I go to the airport every time,” says Fayek. “It’s hard but you also know the kind of life they will end up having, so you are happy.”
But as heartwarming as these stories are, there are still countless strays on Egypt’s streets in need of help.
“I get so depressed,” says Yassin. “My heart is broken. I feel that no matter what I do, I am not fixing the problem. I am just putting a plaster on a very big wound.”
“At first I used to be very happy when I see a happy ending,” she says. “What we go through is painful mentally. But now I am not happy for long. I close a case only to find another case waiting for help.”