In a first step in Syria to save the animals affected by the shelling or abandoned by their owners, a number of volunteers, including a veterinarian, have established an animal sanctuary in the city of Idlib, which is under the control of the armed opposition factions.
The sanctuary, called House of Cats Ernesto, includes about 25 animal species — mainly cats, dogs, monkeys, horses and several types of birds such as pigeons, ducks, geese and chickens, in addition to some livestock such as donkeys and goats.
Mohammad Youssef, the veterinarian at the sanctuary, told Al-Monitor, “We are working on sheltering stray animals such as cats and dogs, and we are contacting local councils in the area to help the team carry out awareness campaigns among civilians on the need to care for animals as a humanitarian duty, in addition to the importance of their [animals’] role in maintaining the ecological balance. We are also training cats and dogs on how to deal with humans and how to relieve their needs in the places designated for that, and eat their meals at specific times and places. Then we put them up for adoption. The other part of our work involves rescuing and treating all kinds of injured animals at the clinic [in the sanctuary] and releasing them afterward.”
He added, “In the beginning the purpose of the reserve was limited to treating the animals affected by the shelling, and it was not that developed. We did not have a private clinic and sanctuary at that time, but we tried to organize our work gradually; the sanctuary was established to shelter all kinds of animals in the area. About 16 people were employed, and we now have a full team with some of us specializing in the feeding and caring for animals, or teaching and training them, while others tend to them if they are injured or need attention.”
The sanctuary was first established in 2014 in eastern Aleppo, when the area was under the control of the armed opposition factions. Alaa Mohammad al-Jaleel, the founder of the sanctuary in Idlib, turned the garden of his house in Aleppo’s Hanano neighborhood into a place to care for the cats and provide for their needs. Yet Aleppo’s residents were displaced due to the regime shelling back then, preventing Jaleel from expanding his project to include other animal species.
After the Syrian regime and its allies took control of Aleppo at the end of 2016, Jaleel took all the cats that were at his house in Aleppo’s western countryside and fled to Idlib where he worked with other volunteers to establish the House of Cats Ernesto.
Jaleel told Al-Monitor, “We obtained an official license as an animal care organization called Ernesto based in Italy in 2018. The sanctuary was built in Idlib in early 2019. The organization is funded by donations from animal lovers around the world and whoever is interested. The team uses the funds to provide the needs of the animals from food and vaccines to the necessary medication. It also pays the salaries of the employees and operational costs. The idea of the establishment of the sanctuary had been brewing since I was in Aleppo, when some people contacted me to contribute to the expenses of the cats in my garden. I was about to build the sanctuary in Aleppo when the intensive shelling of the city began. When I moved and obtained the license, I established the sanctuary in Idlib and hired 16 employees.”
He said, “The team is trying to expand its activities by opening new centers to include all areas of northern Syria. The team members received special capacity-building training to deal with animals, and all medical equipment, tools and animal transport vehicles and containers were provided. We then started working on building a large sanctuary on the Syrian-Turkish border to move operations there."
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has also affected the House of Cats Ernesto, when several members of the team were infected. This limited their ability to do the necessary work at the only animal sanctuary in northern Syria.
Youssef explained, “The virus cannot jump species, from humans to animals. To verify this, we talked to Western experts after the first case of infection in our team was detected. They told us that the infected person cannot give the virus to animals. We then continued to work but with minimum team capacity, and we used all necessary precautions, from social distancing between the employees to regularly sanitizing the place.”
Despite the tough circumstances in the towns and cities of northern Syria, and amid the shortage of resources and inability of organizations to meet the citizens’ needs, officials are called upon to take steps to care for animals, too. According to Article 2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Animal Rights and its 14 principles issued on Oct. 15, 1978, “All animals have the right to the attention, care and protection of man.” Article 3 states that “no animal shall be ill-treated or subjected to cruel acts.”