Animal rights groups fight for stricter legislation, change in public opinion
By Natacha Khalife
Special to The Daily Star
Monday, November 30, 2009
BEIRUT: A woman enters the veterinary clinic of Animals Lebanon (AL), holding a cage in which a red-haired, blue-eyed kitten is loudly meowing. The red-faced woman is screaming; she seems angry. She comes to the front desk of the clinic, opens the cage and throws the kitten at an AL volunteer before leaving and slamming the door.
“We demanded she bring back this kitten that she adopted here,” said Safa Hojeij, one of the founders of AL. A brown kitten with a skin infection is sleeping in her arms, and she adds that the same woman also adopted this kitten. However, a volunteer saw the woman this morning throw this kitten in a trash can.
“We do not want our animals to be treated like that, even if it means that we have to take them back to the clinic,” she said.
This episode embodies the typical Lebanese mentality concerning animals that AL and Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA) are fighting against, said Jason Mier, executive director of AL, and Nathalie Semaan, a volunteer in BETA.
However, two special stories have recently raised interest for animals in Lebanon, said Hojeij and Semaan. In February, AL helped to close an entire zoo where animals were neglected and underfed. It took six months of negotiations with the owner to rescue the 42 animals of the zoo, said Hojeij. “This brought a huge amount of awareness to the issue of zoos in the Middle East,” said Mier.
Then, two months ago, a sick and mistreated lion was found almost dead in a small cage covered by a tarpaulin sheets in the Karantina area of Beirut by BETA, said Semaan. This case was extraordinary because it was the first time in Lebanon that a judge issued a decision to remove an animal from its owners because of mistreatment. The lion, named Adam, died one week ago.
These stories triggered a wave of solidarity for animals, said Semaan. After the story of the zoo, donations for AL exploded, said Hojeij.
“In 12 months … we raised $144,000,” said Mier. BETA also noticed a rise of donations following the story of the lion, said Semaan.
Moreover, more and more people have been attending the events organized the associations. On World Animals Day on October 4, about 100 people walked with 25 dogs in the streets of Downtown Beirut, said Semaan.
Lana al-Khalil, president of AL, is the ambassador of World Animal Day in Lebanon, so AL was very involved in this event, trying to create a bond between animals and people, said Hojeij. “World Animal Day was a great success,” she added.
The number of people in BETA’s Facebook group also reflects the Lebanese growing involvement in animal welfare. After Adam the lion was found, the number of members on BETA’s Facebook group doubled, said Semaan. The Facebook group of BETA counts 416 members, and Animals Lebanon has 653 fans.
In spite of this rising awareness, improving animal welfare in Lebanon still faces a lot of difficulties. Only one law protects animals in Lebanon; if someone is caught mistreating an animal, she or he has to pay a fine of LL10,000.
“It is ridiculous – LL10,000 is nothing,” said Semaan.
Lebanon’s legislature is behind a lot of countries concerning animals’ rights.
AL is campaigning for Lebanon to sign the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments, which aims to ensure that “international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival,” said the CITES Web site.
BETA, meanwhile, is seeking to extend legal protection for animals to include regulations as laid down by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
“WSPA is a program which contains about 200 pages of regulations and laws to protect animals, and Lebanon does not even follow one of them,” Semaan said.
Lebanon’s law makers should also create regulations concerning the running of pet shops, said Semaan.
The majority of pet shops in Lebanon are just economically focused and not concerned about their animals’ welfare, said Shadi Tarek, a veterinarian and owner of a pet shop.
“They just want to sell and do not care about what’s going to happen to the animal,” he added. To open a pet shop, people should have a license, added Hojeij.
People’s mentality also holds back the progress of animals’ rights in Lebanon.
“People teach their kids that beating an animal makes them stronger,” said Semaan. Even if some people are joining the animal’s cause, many still doubt the importance of the matter, said Hojeij.
To remedy the animals’ bad treatment the associations focus on awareness, hoping that changing mentality will lead to a modification of laws. AL and BETA organize a lot of programs to foster a love of animals among Lebanese citizens, said Hojeij.
BETA runs a community service where children from the International College come to the group’s shelters of to take the dogs on a walk, said Semaan. For its part, AL has five school children volunteers, said Hojeij.
Informing prospective pet owners of the realities of caring for animals is also used to change attitudes.
People do not really realize the difficulties of having animals, said Hojeij.
“When someone comes in my pet shop to buy an animal, I first scare him or her by compiling all the difficulties that an animal implicates. If she or he still wants to buy the animal, it means that they’re ready,” said Tarek.
Advertisements also play a great role in raising the awareness of Lebanese people concerning animals.
“In the last 12 months we have had tens of thousands of radio spots, more than 50,000 flyers and brochures distributed, and this definitely gets more people interested and talking,” said Mier.
To inform a broader spectrum of the population, AL and BETA organize publicity events, said Hojeij and Semaan.
“Events are a way to touch people that usually do not care about animals,” added Hojeij. Thus AL organized parties to sensitize the young generation about animals, said Hojeij.
The groups hold parties at private houses and venues such as Snatch and B018, said Mier. As well as raising awareness, these events are also a way to earn money for the association, said Hojeij.
But the groups also take more concrete measures to directly improve animals’ welfare.
One of the main proceedings of AL and BETA is the Trap-Neuter-Return program, said Semaan and Hojeij. This consists of trapping a cat or a dog in the street, neutering the animal to prevent breeding, releasing the animal where it was found and providing basic food and water for the animal to live safely, said Hojeij.
BETA and AL also take abandoned animals that cannot have a high quality of life in the street and put them in shelters when they can.
“We currently have 55 animals in our care – most in the shelter,” said Mier.
BETA at this time puts up 240 dogs. Animals in shelters are vaccinated, neutered and put up for adoption. Adopting a cat cost $40, and a dog costs $80.
“In the last year we got about 210 cats and dogs adopted,” said Mier. BETA has found homes for about 500-700 dogs since 2004, added Semaan.
But the fight always goes on. AL was behind a pre-release of the movie New Moon on Monday at the Galaxy cinema in Beirut, three days before its official date of release. Half of the ticket price was donated to the association.
The next event will be the Beirut Marathon on December 6, where 10 percent of the donations will head to AL.
It is a lot of effort, but animals are important and deserve this fight, said Hojeij. Moreover, they contribute to the overall well-being of people, she added.
“It is very simple – proper animal welfare standards help relieve poverty, improve human health and increase respect for the general rule of law,” said Mier.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org