Jhe dog was lying in the middle of Shuhada Street in Gaza City. He had been hit by a car. He looked around, uncertain and terrified, but barked fiercely whenever someone tried to pick him up.
After a phone call, a man in jeans and a hoodie arrived. Without fuss, he got out of the car, picked up the dog and drove it away.
It was Saeed al-Err, the 50-year-old founder of Sulala Animal Rescue, Gaza’s first and only charity that rescues abandoned animals.
His shelter in Gaza City is home to more than 350 dogs. Another rented house in the city is home to around 40 cats, while another 30 are cared for at his home.
Err says he has always loved animals and often took in strays. But a turning point came after seeing a Facebook post from one of Gaza’s municipalities saying it would pay $3 (£2.30) for every dog killed in the area.
Err was horrified and posted an answer. He received messages from members of the public, journalists and various organizations that support animal rights. The next morning, he went to the municipality office and explained to the staff why the plan was wrong. Officials removed the post.
Using a loan from the bank, Err rented land to house animals. He used his own money and contributions from the public to feed them, and went to restaurants and wedding halls asking for donations of leftover food.
After a year, the loan ran out and he had to sell his car to raise money. He had some of the animals adopted, placed others on whatever land he could find.
Just when he thought he had to close, authorities asked him to open the Gaza City shelter. A second shelter recently opened in northern Gaza.
“Every day I get about 10 phone calls about animals in need of rescue. I wish I had half an hour just for myself,” he says.
He rarely sees his eight children. “My wife [Sally] is responsible for everything. Also, she takes care of all the sick cats I have at home: she gives them medicine, food and care. I couldn’t have done anything without her. »
“At first it was difficult,” says Sally. “The key is time management. For me the hardest part is when I deal with a cat with a broken jaw, I have to crush the food and feed it carefully. But I don’t mind. It’s a good deed.”
The hardest part of his job, Err says, is “when you see an animal die. People in general hear about the successes and the animals we save. It’s not always like that. “It’s good for animals to have someone around them during their last moments, to die peacefully instead of being alone and scared.”
But there were many moments of joy.
A dog, named Lucy, was paralyzed when a car ran over her hind legs. There are no prosthetic limbs for animals in Gaza, so Err made his own using toy cars and bicycle parts. He asked his brother, a mechanical engineer, to help with the design and had it built.
The first time Lucy was placed in the prosthesis, she froze. “She was troubled by this extra metallic thing attached to her body,” Err said. “I brought food and put it in front of her. She started moving forward, but couldn’t balance herself at first. Then she suddenly realized she could walk again.
On the first day, Lucy wore the prosthesis for half an hour. A week later, she wore it for two hours a day.
The pandemic has presented additional challenges with rescuing animals during lockdown. It didn’t help when rumors spread of cats and dogs transmitting Covid, and Err had to log on to reassure people.
Err says there is now much more awareness and support for animal welfare in Gaza.
In 2019, the city’s Al-Azhar University launched a course in veterinary medicine, which Err sees as a positive step in improving care for pets and small animals. (There are vets in Gaza, but according to Err, they focus on livestock.)
Meanwhile, volunteers from the rescue center visit nurseries and schools to teach children the importance of caring for animals.
Err has also received support from the international community. One organization offered to pay the salaries of two shelter workers for six months. Several municipalities have contacted him to open their own shelters and more and more people are adopting animals. Before approving any adoption, Err makes sure the animals will go to a safe home and tries to have follow-up visits.
But Err says there’s still a lot to do. “We have come a long way, but the journey has only just begun. I hope that one day I will start a specialized hospital serving all animals. I want to have fully equipped shelters and educate everyone about animals.
Over the years he has helped hundreds of animals, including donkeys and horses, but his favorite is a cat called Minwer.
“At the end of long days, I come home and Minwer is waiting for me. If I cover myself with a blanket to stay warm, he will pat my hand to lift the blanket so he can join me. I dream that one day all animals will find a safe space like Minwer.
Ziad Ali is a Palestinian journalist living in the Gaza Strip, writing primarily on civil society and cultural issues. He collaborated with the German cultural organization ifa.
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