BEIRUT: A time of street clashes and political insecurity is not the obvious time to start an animal welfare organization. But Animals Lebanon did just that, establishing itself shortly after Lebanon’s 2008 political crisis.
Five years on, executive director Jason Mier reflects on the organization’s work that persists in both peaceful and turbulent times in a region not known for upholding human rights, let alone animal rights.
“When we started five years ago, if someone said they cared about animals people would think they were weird,” Mier says.
In addition to spreading a growing public awareness of the importance of animal welfare, one of the organization’s biggest victories has been Lebanon’s signing last March of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates trade in both CITES-listed endangered species and animals or plants requested by specific countries. Now, with the close cooperation of the Agriculture Ministry and with several other ministries on board, they’re working on helping to pass a law for the protection of animals. They are also hoping to soon establish a wildlife sanctuary.
These days they get more than 60 calls per day from people in Lebanon who have spotted a lost or wounded animal that needs help. Over the past year, they have also been getting frequent requests from Syria from pet owners requesting help in evacuating and caring for their pets, as their hotel or apartment in Lebanon does not always allow for animals or they are unfamiliar with the legal requirements for traveling with animals.
Although this is not something they initially prepared for, Animals Lebanon has gladly stepped in to help Syrians – a group that now comprises around a quarter of Lebanon’s population.
In November, Mier received an email with a photo of a man holed up in Damascus, sitting in bed with his dog, wearing a hardhat, pleading for help in evacuating his dog from the war zone.
“I have sent you a request to find a good shelter in Beirut for my dog, because I live alone with my dog near Damascus in a very critical area which is bombed every day and I can’t find a safe place for her,” reads the email from Maan, who had been with his dog Juicy for 14 years. For around a year the pair have been confined in a small apartment as fighting rages outside.
“I am planning to go to Switzerland to live with my daughter there, and I can’t go without my dog, so I have prepared all the needed documents for her to [enter] Switzerland. But I have to wait two months [because of] the European rules for bringing animals. The attached Zip file includes nine pages for [your] information,” Maan wrote.
Mier couldn’t say no. He arranged for a two-month foster home for Juicy in Beirut, and he helped Maan with his dog’s travel documents.
The safety of household pets is inarguably trivial in comparison to the human catastrophe in neighboring Syria. For those like Maan, however, their pets are a part of the family and as a result Animals Lebanon said it’s getting around five requests per day from Syrians asking for help relocating their animals.
The Beirut-based NGO is doing what it can to help the Syrian pet owners with logistics in getting their dogs and cats the support they need – including proper paperwork, transportation, vaccinations, foster care and sometimes just advice – as they evacuate their animals from a war zone.
Other animals are being left behind as families throughout the country are forced to survive on dwindling supplies of food, and in some cases abandon their farms.
There are also four small zoos in the Damascus area, although it is difficult to access information about their conditions, according to Animals Lebanon.
“Like people, animals are suffering due to lack of appropriate medicines. In areas where there is not enough food for humans, there are large numbers of very hungry cats and dogs. There is nothing in the rubbish bins anymore,” reads an email from a person in Syria that Animals Lebanon is trying to help.
“In my area, various farm animals have died due to shelling. There are farm animals in some strange places – half built blocks of apartments, garages, etc., because people cannot get to their farms!”
Mier sees the help they’re offering Syria as similar work to what some volunteers did in Lebanon in 2006 and a taste of the efforts they would need to carry out should the security situation deteriorate in Lebanon.
“This is training for us in case things get worse here,” Mier says.
“If things get worse here, there are around 100,000 animals in Lebanon that might need to be helped in a similar way.”