Changing Society Through Saving Animals
Eihab Boraie heads on a field trip with Alsson School and their Assistant Principal Julie Clarke to discover the kids' tireless efforts in helping local strays and livestock and educating their surrounding community on animal welfare.
The myriad of problems in Egypt that stem from a lack of education ranges from disheartening to absolutely disgusting. This is most evident in the way that many in Egyptian society continue to abuse animals with little to no regards for the sanctity of life. If the systemic abuse is ever to end, the culture must change and the best way to achieve that goal in the future is to begin by changing the mindset of Egypt’s children.
Looking to make a long lasting difference in hopes of ending animal abuse is the wonderful Assistant Principal of the El Alsson British International School, Julie Clarke. Arriving in Egypt seven years ago, Ms. Clarke was shocked by the level of animal abuse running rampant in Cairo. With the school located along the winding agricultural Sakkara road, seeing abused dogs and farm animals had become part of the everyday bus ride. Fed up with feeling helpless, Ms. Clarke began feeding and seeking aid for the many forgotten dogs surrounding the school. “The position of the school is perfect for local community projects, and the first thing I noticed is a lot of dogs running around the village, so I started a little club where we feed them, get them vaccinations, or any medicine they need and it grew from there,” she explains. It wouldn’t take long before children age 12-16 began noticing that their teacher was sneaking out at recess to go feed the dogs and, looking to get involved with animal care, they asked if they could join her.
Admittedly, as soon as I was made aware about the programme, I too wanted to tag along, not just to help the struggling dogs, but also because I couldn’t believe that something like this could be possible. From my ignorant understanding of the elite culture, the thought of private school children getting permission from their parents to go around the village feeding what many in society call dirty, ‘balady’ dogs, just didn’t seem believable. To my amazement, not only do the parents appreciate their children leaving school grounds and interacting with the real world they are often sheltered from, but go so far as providing the dog food.
On the day that I went to check out their work, a student animal activist named Ali had brought dog food, shampoo, and vitamins. The young and compassionate Ali has been providing dog care with the group for over a year, and has learned a lot from the experience. “I have three dogs that I love very much. Two I bought at a pet store, but my newest was a very abused dog that a friend of mine had rescued from the street. He was injured everywhere but I took care of him and now he is very happy and healthy,” he explains, as a dozen student volunteers cram into a microbus.
After a five-minute drive we arrive to an open, green farm where a few pieces of old equipment and rudimentary stone walls act like shade for around 20 rescued dogs and a few livestock. There aren’t enough precious words to describe the sight of dogs and children remembering each other and running up the path together in excitement. Though some might assume that there is an inherent element of danger in feeding and caring for stray dogs, in over a year of the Alsson children doing so, there hasn't been a single incident. You could just tell by looking that the dogs realised that their friends have come back to help. On this particular occasion, one of the dogs had a problem walking and, almost instinctually, it emerged from the shadows to seek help from the kids and their teacher. After Ms. Clarke investigated the damaged leg, it was concluded that the injury was either a severe sprain or a broken bone and within minutes Ms. Clarke could be seen making a quick phone call and arranging an appointment for an X-ray. “Anytime we find an injured dog that we need professional help for, we have always counted on SPARE (Society for the Protection of Animals Right in Egypt) and Dr. Ramy Eissa from Advance Vet Care in Maadi. Both have helped with vaccinations, operations and treating the dogs when they’re sick. We couldn’t do what we do without them!” she thankfully expresses.
Taking ownership of the dogs is a man set in his own traditions named Ibrahim. Despite living in poverty, Ibrahim genuinely cares for and about his animals. As I interviewed him I could see that some of the kids were itching to ask their own questions, and so I gave them my microphone and let them lead the investigation. Through a series of clever questions it becomes clear that on more than one occasion Ibrahim has rescued these dogs and is very protective about their health. However, with a lack of education, Ibrahim prefers to use traditional methods instead of modern medicine. “When farmers see dogs fighting each other, they automatically assume they have rabies and believe the remedy is to burn the dog on the forehead with a hot piece of iron. Their theory is that when they have a burn, blood rushes to the area and heals it, so if a dog has a problem in the brain then burning the forehead will heal it,” a baffled Ms. Clarke explains, adding: “We have even gotten dogs vaccinated for rabies, but he still insists that medicine lasts for a few months, but the burn will last forever.”
As bad as dogs have it here in Egypt, livestock animals have it worse. Fully aware of this epidemic Ms. Clarke and her kids have expanded their programme beyond just feeding dogs and have gone as far as Luxor to work with ACE (Animal Care in Egypt) in treating farm animals. Most donkeys and horses are looked at as vehicles to carry heavy loads in traditional societies. The chains fastened around their noses and the saddle on their backs creates ghastly infections and scars. “Working farm animals suffer the most in Egypt. So we raised this issue with the kids, and together came up with simple solutions like putting a bandage as padding around their nose to protect from the wear and tear of the chains and saddles,” a proud Ms. Clarke remarks. Meanwhile, she's aware of Egyptian mentalities towards livestock adding that "when you see a donkey struggling along, it is often because: A) there is nowhere for them to go get healed; B) there is poverty and the owner needs it for work or C) they look at donkeys as cars - sure it may be dented but as long as it keeps moving, they consider it being fine. But you can’t go in there screaming and shouting at someone for having a skinny donkey. Chances are they themselves have nothing to eat. However if you approach them as human beings they can be won over."
Humbly, Ms. Clarke stresses that the children are the real heroes, and have learnt a lot about life through interacting with the impoverished community. “When we started going out looking at the dogs, the local village kids started to join us, and the kids began talking with each other, bringing them clothes, and eventually began a new programme where our kids take a recess every week to help teach these kids English.” The more I learnt about these kids the better I felt for Egypt’s future and animal rights. One day these kids may find themselves in a position of power, and thanks to their upbringing and the leadership of Ms Clarke, will potentially lead the charge in protecting animals.
Usually I like to write a conclusion that sums everything up, but before leaving the school Ms. Clarke sent me a report the children made for the school explaining what they learnt from the experience. It summarises exactly why this initiative is important, and why the future for animals and Egypt is a whole lot brighter thanks to their tireless efforts:
"So the question that instantly pops up is: ‘Why help the animals first before the people?’ Helping animals was just a beginning to a chain of events of opening up so many other paths and ways of helping people from different communities. Now that we’ve gotten to know the locals, they’ve gotten to know us as a different social class instead of a typical stereotype. This changed the preconception they have of us. We take pride in the charity work that we are achieving because it has opened our eyes to things we have never thought of before and made us realise that we are all the same, no matter which community or class we are from."
Photography by Mahmoud Asfour