By Debra Denker
Many pairs of soulful eyes, canine and feline, look at me with eagerness and curiosity as I enter the courtyard of the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends (ESAF) on the outskirts of Cairo. I am here with ESAF’s co-founder, British-born Jackie el-Sherbiny, to learn about how ESAF is implementing a grant from Animal-Kind International for a trap-neuter-release program for street dogs in the Giza Governorate.
ESAF was founded 17 years ago by fellow animal lovers Jackie and her Egyptian husband, the late Ahmed el-Sherbiny, in whose name and memory the grant was given. Its facility, which includes shelters for both dogs and cats, as well as a separate cage for vervet monkeys who were rescued, is in the Shabramont district on the road to the ancient pyramid complex at Saqqara southwest of Cairo.
I quickly realize that Uber never would have found the place, and am grateful that Jackie invited me to meet her at her flat in Cairo and join her in ESAF’s van. I’m happy to meet Jackie’s three cats as well as her neighborhood cat colony that she feeds along with the local street dogs, and enjoy listening to her animated conversation about the history of ESAF and its current work.
We stop to buy cat food at a couple of pet shops on the way, and I’m glad to know that some Egyptians are living with and caring for companion animals. As in many nations struggling with underdevelopment and poverty, sharing a home with animals is not a pervasive practice in the culture. I watch with amusement as a man at a café next to the pet shop lets a cat drink out of his breakfast bowl on the table. Jackie tells me that the owners of these pet shops feed the local cats, as she does.
ESAF has a Dog Wing and a Cat Wing separated by a sturdy wall. The dogs eagerly jump on the chain link fence, happy to see a new face. Petra, an elderly three-legged dog rescued long ago when a fall from a building necessitated the amputation of a foreleg, follows me around and demands affection, so I pet the top of her tawny head. ESAF offers paid veterinary services as well as treatment of dogs with mange, rescue of cats and kittens, and the trap-neuter-release program.
The team of vets is busily neutering and spaying dogs when we arrive.
Later, I have a chance to chat with Dr. Maryam Magdi, a young woman who loves her work and loves all animals. A couple of days later I see her proud post on social media that she has managed to get her spaying incision down to 2 centimeters and her time down to 40 minutes, ensuring less trauma and faster healing for the dogs and more time to do this seemingly endless task.
A couple of weeks before my visit to ESAF, I was with a group at the Sphinx at dawn. As soon as the sun rose, dogs began to gather from all directions, most of them with tawny coats matching the desert and stones. Even the most dedicated dog-lover might feel a bit of trepidation at the sight of so many wild dogs approaching at once, but it quickly becomes apparent that for whatever reason, these dogs are friendly and affectionate. Not a single one shows any aggression. There’s a bit of crotch-sniffing and mostly a lot of asking for affection.
Feral dogs and cats are found everywhere in Egypt, from the sites of ancient monuments and temples to the alleys and suqs of Old Cairo, to the upscale neighborhoods on the island of Zamalek in Cairo, to the villages along the Nile in Upper Egypt. Any cat-lover would be delighted to meet the cat colonies at Karnak Temple and the Isis Temple at Phillae, casting one back to the glory days when cats were worshipped as gods in Ancient Egypt.
Then the reality hits. All those affectionate cats and dogs, when their numbers grow too great, will be poisoned by the authorities or by people in the neighborhood. Trap-neuter-release programs are the compassionate and sensible answer to humane reduction of population growth. After a simple surgery and recovery, the animals are returned to the streets and companions with which they are familiar.
The day I visit ESAF there is no trapping going on, but Jackie shows me pictures of one of their star trappers, a master of using a blowpipe with a fast-acting tranquilizer on a dart. As soon as the dog is out cold, he or she is gathered into the van and taken for a short stay at ESAF’s facility, to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and treated for any illnesses.
Some dogs end up staying for a long time, becoming permanent residents like Petra, or being adopted. One lucky dog, Sheila, ended up going to Germany after being adopted by a German family working in Egypt. Jackie tells me how sweet it was to see pictures of Sheila playing in the snow.
ESAF doesn’t currently have a trap-neuter-release program for cats, but cats end up in the shelter the same way they do anywhere else in the world. Orphaned kittens are brought in by the litter, or sometimes a tiny single one is brought in by a compassionate person. Flossie, a gorgeous and kind kitty-momma whose litter was born too prematurely to survive, nurses a litter of kittens four or five weeks old. Her milk came in as soon as the kittens started suckling, and she treats them as her own. A tiny black and white kitten, weeks younger than the others, is bottle-fed by Dr. Nesma. Jackie invites me to name it and I choose the Arabic version of one my cats’ names: Sami if it’s a boy, Samia if it’s a girl.
As I have tea with Jackie and some of the veterinary staff, now finished with surgeries for the day, a young woman in a black full burqa enters the courtyard, a smile in her eyes as she goes straight into the Cat Wing. Jackie tells me that this woman loves cats so much that she comes virtually every day to play with the cats for hours. As I walk through the Cat Wing, I’m struck by how well this colony of cats gets along. Of course I want to take them all home with me.
A family brings in a dog with matted fur, covered with flies, in the trunk of their car. Jackie and the staff are not happy that they have brought the dog in under false pretenses—saying they just needed an x-ray because the dog fell off a building—then claimed they had no money and wanted to leave the dog at ESAF. But of course ESAF ends up accepting the dog. Luckily, an x-ray shows only minor injury with no damage to the spinal cord. One of the staff holds the dog until he calms down and begins to wag his tail. He’ll be one of the residents of ESAF as he heals.
Jackie explains the other programs that ESAF runs. A very simple pamphlet in Arabic with clear pictorial illustrations demonstrates humane care of donkeys, from proper placement of saddles and harnesses to prevent saddle sores to getting injections against common parasites to making sure that the donkeys have adequate water in Egypt’s hot climate. ESAF offers similar outreach to camel-drivers and to the men who hire out horses at the pyramids of Giza.
In a city of 20 million people, the challenges of doing animal rescue work are enormous. No one can know how many street dogs and feral cats there are. I have noticed that in upper middle class neighborhoods like Jackie’s and those of my Egyptian friends, the cats and dogs look relatively well-fed and manage to co-exist with each other and with humans, whereas in poorer areas where humans are likely to experience food scarcity, the cats are thin and the dogs desperate, and both species likely to suffer from illnesses. Programs like ESAF’s may “only” reach thousands of dogs and cats per year, but as the saying goes, the kindness and care given will have changed that dog’s or that cat’s life forever.
To read about AKI's grant to ESAF, check out our Grants Program 2019 page.