Although the term “animal rights” may sound like Chinese to many, the Cairene community seems to be becoming gradually interested in the welfare of domestic animals.
“Comparing to other governorates, Cairo is animal heaven,” says Dina Zulfikar, one of the most renowned animal welfare activists in Egypt.
She says there are 11 animal rights organizations and they are all in the capital. “There is Brooke, an international organization dedicated to improving the lives of working animals in poor countries, the donkey sanctuary, and the Egyptian Mau Rescue Organization (EMRO) for Mau cats, which also encourages adoption,” adds the activist, explaining that there are also sanctuaries concerned with the welfare of cattle. Finally, there are three animal shelters: the Egyptian Society for Animals (ESAF), the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE) and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA), which currently shelters 632 animals (cats, dogs and horses).
It is very hard to get correct numbers and statistics on stray animals in Egypt. According to Zulfikar the census office and the American Embassy are the most reliable sources. However, she believes that thorough statistics are really hard to get today because of the increasing number of slum areas in the capital.
Mona Khalil, chairperson of ESMA, says that “the government stands rigid against any project to gather statistics,” and the Ministry of Agriculture does not see the urgency of projects concerning stray animals. Mass killing using poison or shooting seems to be the most common method used by the government to ‘solve’ the problem of stray dogs, she adds. “Strychnine is an internationally banned poison but the Egyptian government pays in dollars to import it to kill stray dogs. It is a highly toxic alkaloid.”
According to Zulfikar, there are enough people interested in animal welfare in Egypt, but in order to make this fight a priority, they need to get involved in politics. “There has to be a serious attempt to the change the law concerning animals and that would be achieved through the parliament."
Khalil explains that the major problem related to animal welfare in Egypt is lack of awareness. “ESMA approached 20 public figures and only one showed interest and got back to us,” she says. “It is not the animals' fault that we live in a country that has no human rights! What happened to mercy?”
“In the 19th century, there were masaqy al-kelab (fresh water source for dogs) behind Al-Azhar supervised by a dedicated sheikh called al-Sawaf,” says Khalil.
Both activists think that the Organization for Veterinary Service, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and all society should all be involved in the passing of a new law on animal welfare. “We have the best laws for wild animal protection worldwide because they were passed through the Ministry of Environment. But domestic animals fall under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture and are only mentioned in two vague paragraphs," Khalil says.
“The law that protects domestic animals is extremely vague, she explains, quoting the following excerpt: “It is forbidden to kill an animal without necessity,” stressing how the term “necessity” can be understood in many different ways.
"Donation money and sponsors are effective for animal rights organizations and shelters but awareness is even more important,” explains Zulfikar. She organizes events in public facilities and events to reach more people and raise awareness, for example at the Cairo Film Festival for children.
Zulfikar’s last event was “Orphans Day” in Saqqara, raising awareness on animal rights among a group of young children through games and drawing. “Children are the future,” she explains.
Breeders and pet shops also share responsibility for spreading awareness. “We all need to work together, the media, prominent NGOs, activists, animal welfare societies, law makers and enforcers, to reach a comprehensive and applicable law," Zulfikar says. “Do you know that most animal abuse is committed by kids? How do you expect to legally punish a child for abuse charges?"
“We have to refuse violations and report any incident of abuse to the police or to an animal organization,” says Khalil, addressing each and everyone one of us. “There has to be a change of attitude and animal lovers need to work together and know that they are not a minority anymore. There has to be an elaborate article in the Egyptian law concerning all types of animals, stray, owned, circus and working animals, in addition to exports and imports of animals.”