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Damascus Cats

February 15, 2007 by Tails Magazine in February 2007 with 0 Comments

By Katie McClellan

The cats come out at night to forage for food in Damascus’ Old City in Syria.

The older ones seem to have mastered the art of opening and rummaging through the neatly tied garbage bags left in the alley corners without getting too dirty; the younger ones have a harder time, often diving into the bags with their whole bodies, and then emerging with blackened muzzles and paws. I’ve often wondered if black cats here are the target of much jealously from their white-coated feline friends; dirt here has a way of sticking to what would otherwise be beautiful white or orange fluff.

The cat situation in Syria is a paradox. Once regarded with respect and affection, cats are now mostly seen as a pest problem and their numbers are quickly growing, especially in the larger cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, making for more meowing, more begging at store windows, and messier alleyways after a night’s work in the garbage. In some parts of the city, the situation has gotten out of control, and city workers are often resorting to inhumane ways of controlling the population. A recent rumor around town, for example, detailed the gruesome poisoning of the large cat population living on the campus of Damascus University. And though the majority of cats here have smartly conditioned themselves to be wary of humans, some, especially kittens, still find themselves in the grips of misguided children or bored troublemakers. Perhaps more troubling is the general population who stands by to watch this take place. For the most part, cats are tolerated and ignored, viewed as merely part and parcel of Damascus’ urban landscape.

But, as is the scenario in many parts of the world, for every act of cruelty directed toward cats comes five acts of compassion. Indeed, it seems that a kind, feline-friendly soul lurks on every block of the city. One elderly man I met, an owner of a car-parts store, brings a large cooking pot of chicken and rice with him every morning to feed a lucky group of neighborhood cats. Another, the owner of the vegetable stand where I buy my fresh tomatoes and zucchini, spends his day side-by-side with his sleeping Tabby, whom he raised from orphaned kittenhood. Still others, especially butchers and fishmongers, have worked out deals with individual cats, who receive bits and scraps throughout the day and are allowed to sleep in shop doorways, as long as they don’t touch the merchandise. In the early morning, groups of cats lounge outside of these stores, waiting for merchants to arrive. Because of this, the majority of cats are, at least on the surface, quite healthy-looking, leaner than cats in other parts of the world, but also more muscular and fit.

Damascus’ cat population is noticeably larger than it was ten years ago, but it is difficult to know how to even begin approaching a solution. In a place where most people need to think about their own survival, due to the ever-growing poverty rate, before those of the animals around them, cats are most often left ignored or are at the mercy of those individuals who have soft spots in their hearts for them. Further complicating the situation is that Islamic law discourages the altering of animals’ bodies, making spaying and neutering almost unheard of, and any thoughts of trap-spay-release programs remain a fantasy. The handful of vets operating in Damascus cater mostly to upper-class Christians with dogs, who can afford to pay for purebred pups from massive puppy mills in the countryside. For these people, dogs are as much a status symbol as they are part of the family. Though most Muslims will tolerate dogs, they are often thought of as dirty animals who don’t belong in the home. The few dogs in Damascus, then, for the most part belong to Christian families.

Damascus’ cat population is noticeably larger than it was ten years ago, but it is difficult to know how to even begin approaching a solution.

The near future doesn’t look too bright for Syria’s cats, but sparks of hope can be found in the Lebanese animal group BETA (Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). BETA was founded by a group of concerned university students who had become fed up with the lack of resources for Lebanon’s large stray dog and cat populations. The small organization began by rescuing and placing stray dogs and cats in homes, and now it has expanded to educating the Lebanese public about other animal issues in the country. The group’s most recent collaboration has been with Utah’s Best Friends Animal Society, which helped to rescue and find homes for hundreds of animals left homeless by the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict.

Though major differences still exist between Lebanon and Syria, the fact that BETA is only a couple of hours away from Damascus is promising. Perhaps in several years, Damascus’ cats will find themselves the recipients of organized care and support as well. Until then, they must rely on kind hearts and full garbage bags.

When Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah announced it was planning a rescue effort to save animals from the war zone in Lebanon, filmmaker Josh Gibson knew he wanted to be involved. Nine days later he was on a plane to Lebanon where he began working with and filming BETA (Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the non-profit organization that was co-sponsoring the rescue with Best Friends. Over the course of the three weeks, Gibson’s camera observed the rescue operation including building crates, examining the animals’ health, securing transportation, and more. On September 25, 295 animals, two vets, five members from Best Friends, and Three BETA co-founders boarded a plane for Las Vegas. Gibson followed the crew for its entire journey back to Best Friends headquarters where a refugee camp was set up for the animals. Gibson hopes BETA: A Documentary will raise awareness of the plight of homeless animals in the Middle East. All proceeds will benefit the construction of a new shelter for BETA. Visit www.GreenFilms.org for more information.

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