Trip review: independent pre-vet volunteering with the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals

esma-1 One of the rooms at the ESMA cat shelter in the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt

Official pitch

“The Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA) is a registered Egyptian NGO (No. 3059/2007) formed in late 2007. ESMA actively works to improve animal welfare in Egypt for all animals, including street dogs and cats, working animals such as donkeys, horses and camels, wildlife, animals in the Cairo zoo, those sold in pet shops and live animal markets, and all animals slaughtered for food. ESMA operates two no-kill shelters and adoption centers in Egypt, and is also involved whenever possible in ongoing campaigns, initiatives, and advocacy activities to promote animal welfare issues in Egypt.”

More: or their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Costs, housing, and basic information

For my foreign language in undergrad, I took Arabic, and so I decided to find a place in the Middle East to volunteer over my spring break during my sophomore year. (Too bad no one told me that formal Arabic is basically useless outside of college classrooms!) I contacted ESMA after finding the group online, and they were happy to have me volunteer for a week. I had traveled to Egypt before, and while the country is a bit unstable, I felt fairly comfortable in Cairo. I booked my own budget hotel in a tourist-friendly part of the city (the Mayfair Hotel in Zamalek), and took a private car to the shelters. Aside from my flight, I spent less than $100 a day for a budget hotel room, food, and some souvenirs for my 10-day stay. If you stayed in a hostel, you could still get by fine on about $50 a day.

Because I was the only outsider, I was able to spend more time talking with ESMA’s Egyptian founders Mona and Bahra, Christina, an expat and devoted fundraiser/volunteer, and Susie, an expat and board member. I enjoyed having meals and candid conversations about the shelter and the state of animal welfare in the country. I could have never had that experience if I’d been with a group of a 30 people, and I learned a lot from it. As an independent trip, I could also schedule it to fit perfectly in the 10 days I had between classes during spring break.

esma-4Standing in a shaded part at the ESMA dog shelter, looking onto the main “herd”

Cultural factors

ESMA’s two big decision-makers, Mona and Bahra, are local women. While there are expat and foreign board members, donors, and volunteers, ESMA is an Egyptian-controlled organization. There are a lot of problems inherent to barging into a culture and telling people to change their values to be more like your values, no matter how noble your intentions. (It’s a topic I’m constantly wresting with, and should be pondered regularly by anyone considering international volunteer work.) I’m glad that ESMA and other animal rescue groups exist in the Middle East, and that they can make culturally-relevent arguments for animal welfare that I can’t make as an outsider. One such initiative has involved ESMA’s Muslim founders making the case to fellow Muslims that holy texts endorse the humane treatment of animals, and trying to spread the notion of animal welfare as a Muslim value, not just a Western value. ESMA has so much work ahead of them, and hopefully their fellow Egyptians will listen to what they have to say.

Vacation factor

I had been to Egypt as a tourist previously, so this time my focus was just on volunteering. While jet-lagged on my first day, I wandered around the vast souq picking up little gifts for friends, and then spent the rest of the day in the wonderful Egyptian Museum, which houses a staggering collection of artifacts, art, and mummies. It’s a grand old museum in the best sense, and you can find yourself alone in a dusty corner scanning hand-written labels, feeling like you’re discovering lost treasure. The famous Giza pyramids aren’t very far outside of central Cairo, so one could easily get in a decent amount of sightseeing with two days based in Cairo. As with any independent trip, you can add on as much or as little vacation time as you like, and Egypt has plenty to entice visitors: big cities, historic ruins, lively cafes, beach towns with some of the world’s best diving, and calm desert oases in the interior.

A room in the cat shelter, note the cages for mothers and kittens

Typical work day

The best word to describe ESMA is overwhelming.

When you think of an animal shelter, you are probably thinking of 100, maybe 200 cats and dogs. ESMA cares for about 1100-1200 cats and dogs with only a dozen or so staff members — they don’t even know how many animals because there’s no way to keep track of them. Once an animal comes in ESMA’s doors, it’s very unlikely it will leave. As a strictly no-kill, open-admission shelter in a region where almost no one wants to adopt an animal, ESMA is fighting an uphill battle and a steadily increasing headcount.

If you’re accustomed to a culture where people consider cats and dogs as family, the Middle East provides quite a culture shock. Although it’s not in the Quran, there is a strong social stigma that dogs are filthy or unholy animals, similar to superstitions about black cats in Western countries. Being animal welfare advocates in Egypt takes a lot of bravery and big hearts. I admire the women of ESMA for taking on the struggle and giving it so much of their lives, even though I personally think it’s better to focus on sterilization programs rather than sheltering in situations where no one wants to adopt.

Egyptian vets apparently do not learn companion animal medicine, so local veterinarians might not understand how to diagnose and treat a cat or dog issue. I watched a couple of the vets called in by ESMA, and my impression was that their feline skill level maxed out with offering antibiotics and IV fluids, but I know ESMA also has vets who handle limb amputations for car accident dogs. The idea of “pets” is starting to make its way into urban Egyptian culture, but it’s still more of an upperclass thing, like having a purebred dog or cat as a status symbol. (ESMA member Christina also took me on a walking tour of some Cairo pet shops, where beautiful puppies were left in filthy pens without food or water, and some animals looked half-dead.) The women of ESMA had to seek out local vets willing to learn spay and neuter procedures from textbooks, and ESMA opted to neuter all animals because it’s lower risk than performing spays. (Not a foolproof strategy, as one resident female cat was found to be pregnant while I was there.)

The paid staff who work on cleaning and feeding the animals weren’t animal lovers, they’re just people who can’t find jobs doing anything else, and generally didn’t seem too happy to be stuck cleaning up after animals. Although I can’t understand Egyptian Arabic, I got the distinct impression from staff stares that they saw the ESMA women and myself as absolutely nuts. Why else would someone waste so much money stockpiling and feeding stray animals? I’m sure it made as much sense as if I met someone in America who decided to start rounding up untamed sewer rats, giving them all names, and then keeping the rats in their home.

Since visiting volunteers were rare, there wasn’t a volunteer program or schedule for me to fall into, so I was given tasks like washing diarrhea-covered kitties or giving ear mite drops. I also took a bottle-fed kitten home to my hotel one night. ESMA now has more of an organized volunteer program with weekly cat shelter visits and dog walking, but when I was there, I think they didn’t quite know what to do with me. At the cat shelter, there were just so many cats, it’s hard to know where to start.

esma-3This is what it looks like when you enter ESMA’s cat shelter — everyone wants to say hello!

Types of animals

As a cat person, I spent most of my time at the cat shelter, where there was everything from scrawny one-eyed street cats to gorgeous purebred longhairs that had been discarded by people of status fleeing the 2011 revolution. The thing you quickly learn about ESMA’s cats, as you’re standing there blown away by the sheer number of them, is that they are desperate for human affection. Many of them express this by running up your legs and back, trying to make it to your shoulders so they can give you purring head-butts and ask for a face scratch. (Here’s a video from another visitor to the shelter.) The cat shelter is a three story building in the Cairo suburbs, perhaps a former office block or school, with most of its cats free-roaming  in rooms where they had food, water, litter boxes, window perches, and furniture odds and ends like mattresses, shelves, and chairs. Mothers with kittens and sick cats were kept in cages, but the rest flowed around the rooms like a school of fish.

The cats would actually get in fights with one another to get closer to me as I sat on the floor. During one such skirmish, my wrist got stick in the middle, and I got a nasty cat bite from a white cat who steadfastly refused to give up his seat on my lap and was defending it from other cats. I wasn’t mad at him, of course, but I did scrub the wound carefully and take a course of antibiotics. (No one washes their hands at ESMA, no matter how much filth gets on you. I think I looked like a hypochondriac always asking for a bar of soap or getting up to clean my hands.) Despite my best attempts at hygiene, I came down with a horrible 24-hour sickness that left me with vomiting and diarrhea bad enough that I almost checked into a hospital for IV fluids. I have an iron stomach with eating food around the world, and I think I must have accidentally gotten something in my mouth from handling the cats. (By the end of my 10 days, the pharmacy near my hotel recognized me.)

The nearby dog shelter, where I spent just one day, was largely open-air, with some covered runs for puppies, injured animals, and those who were too aggressive to be handled. The dog shelter was similar in terms of overcrowding, filled with dogs jumping all over you begging for attention. Having not been trained to not jump on people, I was nearly knocked over many times by an over-eager and friendly group. There was also a special area for disabled dogs who had mobility issues or missing limbs, most of whom came into ESMA after having barely survived being hit by cars. As with the cat shelter, it’s hard to know what to even do when faced with 500-600 dogs that all want you to play with them, and you have to move carefully to avoid stepping on paws. ESMA founder Mona was at her most proud and joyful at the dog shelter, and wanted to make sure to check on every dog and make sure it was being cared for.

esma-6Meeting disabled dogs at ESMA, the least-crowded part of the shelter

Most memorable case

I took 3 very lucky kittens home with me, and a month later, received an air delivery of 2 more kittens who went onto great lives after being re-homed by a local rescue. Those five little lives are the foster animals nearest to my heart, and they were worth the effort, despite the hassles of having a ringworm isolation ward in my house and all the baths, medications, laundry, and bleach cleaning it entailed. While shipping animals to other countries isn’t a sustainable strategy for population control, I’m still very proud of my special team of beautiful kittens who were adopted by people charmed by the novelty of having an Egyptian (stray) cat.

What I’ll do differently when I go again

I’ll be honest: every night when I came come from the cat shelter, I took off my gross scrubs and cried in the shower. It was the most emotionally draining volunteer experience of my life, because the problems in Egypt are so huge, and so systemic, that it feels impossible to make progress. I hated thinking about all those animals, crying and begging and fighting each other just for some attention. Most of them would never know the companionship of having a human family. As much as ESMA was dirty and crowded, those animals were the country’s lucky animals, not facing starvation and violence on Cairo’s streets. They had some medical care, enough food to get by, and occasional walks and hugs. I was glad to have the social support of ESMA’s Christina and Susie, as well as brunch with an Egyptian human rights activist friend for a broader take on the political situation of the country.

Of all the places I have been, I most want to return to Cairo, but I’m waiting until I have something more useful to offer to an ability to brush cats and bring home kittens as a part of what my Egyptian activist friend amusedly called, “a political asylum program for cats.”  I wish I’d been more proactive at ESMA about finding important things to do, like trying to catalogue all the animals and note their medical conditions. It’s overwhelming, but I wish I had come in with a project I could complete and feel like I’d done more.

I think that the thing Egyptian cats and dogs need most is a trap-neuter-return program. Rounding up strays and warehousing them doesn’t address root issues of animal suffering, but a city-wide effort to reduce stray cat and dog populations could make a dent. As soon as I can sterilize animals myself, I plan to head back to Cairo, hopefully with other skilled international volunteers with me. ESMA is an example of how local people have the passion to create change, and have built local contacts and infrastructure, but could really use outside help in the form of skilled vets who know how to work with companion animals.

Covered dog runs for mothers/puppies, sick dogs, those on medication, and aggressive animals

Overall, the trip was a good fit if…

* You want to have an urban international trip
* You want hot running water, convenience foods, and city nightlife
* You want to focus on cats and dogs
* You want the scheduling freedom that comes with independent volunteering
* You want to choose your own housing and how much you spend on your trip
* You’re a self-starter or have ideas for useful projects
* You want to learn about how animal shelters work in less-developed countries

And the trip was not best fit if…

* You want a clearly-outlined and structured volunteer program
* You want to argue about euthanasia — ESMA’s founders do not believe in euthanizing animals, citing religious reasons
* You want to volunteer under the direction of a veterinarian or learn new veterinary skills
* You want to see a lot of surgery
* You don’t have a decent amount of global “street smarts” — Egypt isn’t in total chaos, but the country is unstable, and you shouldn’t wander around alone outside of well-trafficked areas or at night

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2 responses on Trip review: independent pre-vet volunteering with the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals

  1. Hi Sabrina,
    (I am dutch so my english is not a 100%). I read your post about ESMA in Cairo, which is very helpfull. I also think about visiting this shelter as a volunteer. I spent my holidays in foreign sheIters and already went to a lot of them (Thailand, Turkey). I recognize a lot of what you are writing (for example the discussion about euthanizing). I go there for the dogs and my maingoal is to give them attention, and ‘clean’ them up so they feel a little bit better. I hope to visit this shelter in April. Thanks again for the information about Cairo and the shelter.

    1. Thank you, I’m glad my post was helpful. I am sure the dogs at the ESMA shelter would love having you visit to play with them. They were all so desperate for attention.

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