Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Guest Blog: Saudi Arabian Cat Rescue

By Debra J. White

At least 28 million people live in Saudi Arabia, the second largest nation in the Arab world. Cat ownership i
s popular but no official estimates exist. Middle East countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Kuwait have animal shelters but not Saudi Arabia. There is no animal control either. Local officials often poison strays. Cat overpopulation is rampant in cities and towns nationwide. Animal cruelty was not legally punishable until just recently when the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture enacted a law that according to the Saudi Gazette (July 8, 2013) covers all animals namely birds, pets, wild animals and livestock. Failure to provide humane living conditions can result in fines or business closure but there is a question of enforcement. It is too early to judge the law’s effectiveness. Only recently have rescue groups formed to deal with pet overpopulation, animal cruelty, careless breeders, and other animal related issues.

Founded in 2012, the Saudi Humane Society lacks a formal shelter but instead is a network of volunteers who rescue animals in need throughout the country, particularly in the larger cities of Jeddah and Riyadh, the capital. The SHS upholds the Islamic values of compassion and mercy towards animals and believes that all Muslims have responsibility to protect them from suffering. Aahd Kadiri of SHS says the nation has no laws protecting animals but they envision a nation that encourages compassionate action and protection of animals where violators will be prosecuted.

Groups like the SHS say Muslims have a responsibility to protect animals. Thousands of animals live better lives because of dedicated caring volunteers and their colleagues, friends and families. Their influence will continue to spread kindness and compassion throughout Saudi Arabia.

Social media opened up adoptions in the United States largely through, Facebook and Twitter. The absence of shelters in Saudi Arabia created a vibrant on-line network for cat rescues. Take the Facebook page Pets in Need (P.I.N.) for example. Started in 2011, it is an open group for everyone who cares about animals. Members post pictures of domestic animals, mostly cats that need good homes or are in dangerous situations. Their mission says Amal Fageeh is to prevent suffering and cruelty to animals, find solutions to cat overpopulation and spread knowledge about animal care. They oppose animals in laboratory experimentation, hunting, zoos, and circuses.

Other rescue groups that place cats into loving responsible homes include Open Paws, the Saudi Society for the Mercy to Animals, Soft Paws and Shargya Paws. Groups network on-line to save cats from unsafe situations and place them into permanent homes. In addition to posting photos of animals in need, requests are made to transport animals for adoption around the country or to ask advice about animal care.

Fatima Ismail checked Instagram one day in the spring of 2013. Her dog Cedars needed company she told her husband Mowaffak. There, she found not only a dog to adopt but a cat that needed a home too. After speaking with a representative from Open Paws, Fatima said bring them both. A relative adopted Sarry but several months later he took a job that required him to relocate. Sarry moved in with Fatima and family. At first the dogs made her nervous but now she lives a happy healthy life.

In the U.S. and other Western nations, cats are almost always spayed or neutered before adoption. Shelters such as the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix offer low-cost spay/neuter surgeries to cut down on overpopulation. That is not an option in Saudi Arabia. The financial burden to spay/neuter cats falls on the rescue community. No foundations provide grants to defray the cost. Fundraising is illegal. Humane education is scarce. Fatimah Basaddiq, a grade school teacher in Jeddah, plans to teach kindness to animals in her class when school resumes in the Fall. Bassadiq also adopted a cat named Ginger from P.I.N. that is adored and cherished by her family.

Overpopulation is complicated by the lack of veterinarians. Only King Faisal University teaches veterinary medicine and it is not open to women. Some parts of the country have no veterinary care at all. Not all pet owners appreciate the importance of spay/neuter and there are no public information campaigns to convey the message that it controls pet overpopulation and is healthier for the pet.

Furthermore, the vast majority of rescuers are women. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women cannot legally drive. Picking up an animal in need requires a male driver or the company of a male relative. When owners cannot or do not want their cats, they may be dumped into the streets or given to mall pet stores who, like mall pet stores in the US, may sell them to unsuitable owners or not insure their health. Since most abandoned cats are unaltered, they reproduce and the cycle of misery continues.

Trap neuter and return commonly known in the Western world as TNR is considered the most effective humane method to control the feral cat population although bird lovers allege it causes the death of millions of birds every year. Feral cats are trapped, sterilized and returned to a colony. While under anesthesia, a cat’s right ear is tipped, a sign of sterilization. A volunteer regularly feeds the colony so they do not venture far seeking food, destroying neighboring property, or getting killed in car accidents. The colony eventually dies out because the cats can no longer reproduce.

Um Asma started the cat rescue Gus’s Hope in 2013 after rescuing a scrawny kitten she eventually named Gus. Along with two friends, one American and one Saudi, they are the backbone of Gus’s Hope. At first Um Asma wasn’t sure Gus would survive. He was sickly and skinny. With lots of love and care, Gus pulled through. Um Asma’s daughter fell in love with the scrappy kitten so he became part of the family. Um Asma continues to rescue adult cats and kittens, finding homes for them all. So do her collaborators. There is no shortage of homeless cats in Saudi Arabia so Gus’s Hope is always busy.

On August 19th, Gus’s Hope held their first TNR event. Small by Western standards, twelve cats were sterilized. However, that is remarkable for an oil rich nation of 28 million people without a single animal shelter. The rescue funded the project and a local veterinarian performed the surgeries.

Cats on TNR Day
What does the future hold for animal rescue in Saudi Arabia? Groups such as Gus’s Hope, the Saudi Society for Mercy to Animals, P.I.N. and others would love to see the construction of the nation’s first animal shelter and stiffer anti-cruelty laws. In the meantime, rescue groups continue to collaborate to find homes for unwanted cats largely through social media and word of mouth. Cats like Ginger, Sarry, Gus and countless others are treasured by their owners. The rescue community won’t give up until Saudi Arabia has a full service animal shelter and humane education in the classrooms, goals that are within reach.