“Animals are just as terrified as humans. So you can see in animals that they start crying and they start hiding,” Annelies Keuleers from Sulala Animal Rescue, the only animal shelter in Gaza, tells The Animal Reader. “They feel exactly the same fear as humans.”
Gaza is home to millions of stray animals. Annelies is based in Belgium and does all communication for Sulala Animal Rescue, which was founded by Saeed Al Err. We talked to Annelies about Saeed’s love for animals and how he and his team have been trying to survive the past two months in Gaza.
What has Saeed accomplished with Sulala Animal Rescue?
Saeed founded the only animal protection organization in Gaza. He founded it in the early 2000s with a couple of friends because you need multiple people to register a charity. He used to walk around the streets to care for and feed stray animals.
In 2019, he was able to establish a shelter for the dogs. He got a piece of land from one of the municipalities in Gaza, and from donations from people outside of Gaza and out of his own pocket, he established a really big shelter, the size of a football field, where he was keeping around 400 dogs.
He also used to just take all the cats in his own house. After a while, he got so many cats that it was unsustainable. So, he started renting two houses to use as cat shelters.
Sulala (Animal Rescue) was also doing awareness sessions. So volunteers used to visit schools to talk to children about the importance of treating animals correctly. How this is in the Islamic religion, that it is important to treat animals correctly when they see an animal in the streets. They should give them food, and they should give them water.
He also had really big dreams of doing much more. He wanted to build five more shelters. Saeed really wanted there to be no more stray animals in all of Gaza. So he had really big dreams.
What happened to the dogs and cats in the shelters?
In the beginning, the dogs were in the shelter, and they were still in a safe area during that time because most of the bombings were happening in the cities. One cat shelter (a house that Saeed had rented to use as a cat shelter) was located south of the evacuation line. Saeed managed to bring all the cats to safety to that shelter in the South (he stayed there with the animals and his family).
One of our employees lived close to the (dog) shelter, and he was going to feed a check on the dogs every day for a couple of weeks into the war and into the ground invasion.
But then he was also forced to leave his house and take his children and wife to a shelter in the South (of Gaza). Eventually, he made his way to the shelter, so he’s safe, but he had to leave the dogs behind. He left 30 bags of 20-kilogram food near the shelter and opened the water barrels. He made little openings in the bags so the dogs wouldn’t eat everything at once.
But you know that was weeks ago, and since then, we haven’t been able to reach the shelter. They also have opened the shelter, so the dogs are not trapped so that they won’t starve.
Since then, a couple of dogs have found their way to Saeed on their on their own. But for the majority of dogs, we don’t really know how they are and Saeed is extremely worried about them. So he would really like to be able to go to the North, and for that, he needs a ceasefire or some kind of permit from the army to be able to get there.
He did take the disabled dogs with him because he knew they wouldn’t be able to survive on the streets. They made a small temporary shelter in an open place of land close to the cat shelter. There are about 20 disabled dogs there now.
People were forced to leave their animals?
Yeah, well, it’s the only thing somebody can do, especially because a lot of people have been taking their dogs into shelters. You can’t really take them (dogs) into a shelter. They’re too big. Other people don’t always appreciate it if you take your dog to the shelter. So (setting them free) it’s the best chance you can give them. Saeed has already found animals that belong to his friends and has taken them in and is caring for them.
Sometimes, it’s also if you have five minutes to evacuate your house before it’s going to be bombed, you don’t have that much of a choice but to set your animal free. I don’t think it’s an easy choice for anybody who owns a pet. But it’s really the only thing you can do in those circumstances.
I received a lot of messages in Arabic from people who are asking if we’ve seen their dog or if we can go help their pets because they’re still stuck in the north of Gaza. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult, Saeed and his team can’t move around.
Do animals know when bombs are falling?
Yes, Saeed talks a lot about this, like, apparently, when a warplane flies over, right before, they make a certain sound. Right before the bomb drops, the sound of the plane changes. And at that moment, everybody feels these bombs are going to drop on their head. Everybody’s terrified.
And animals are just as terrified as humans. So you can see in animals that they start crying, they start hiding. They’re also used to the sound of these warplanes and the sound of bombs dropping, and they feel exactly the same fear as humans.
We have many volunteers who have been feeding cats in the area of their houses because people are not there anymore. So those cats, you can only imagine how lost they feel, and these dogs, it’s really unthinkable, like the effects of war on these innocent animals.
And now there’s no food coming into Gaza?
The first thing Saeed told me when the news broke that there was war in the morning of the seventh of October. The first thing he told me was that they needed to get extra food for the animals, so we bought a huge amount of food.
And yeah, it’s running out now because nothing new is coming in. Saeed has been distributing food to people with cats and dogs because it’s not available in pet shops anymore. But since a week, Saeed has started telling people that he can’t give them food anymore because the food for his own animals is running out.
How many animals have died so far?
It’s really impossible to know how many animals have died. We don’t even know how many humans are under the rubble. There’s probably also so many animals that they’re under the rubble.
You see videos shared on social media of dead animals. They absolutely break your heart, and I never know whether to send it to Saeed because I know it will really hurt him, and he won’t be able to help most of the time because he can’t move around.
I imagine thousands of animals have died. Definitely thousands because also many animals have starved because they have been separated from their owners, and animals have died in the bombings.
We see many people taking care of animals. Many people are carrying their dogs and cats for kilometers while trying to get to safety.
Many people are, despite the fact that there’s a war going on, still thinking about how to help animals. Children have come to Saeed to pick up food to feed stray animals. So there are so many people in Gaza who are taking really good care of animals.
Where does Saeed’s love for animals comes from?
He feels responsible for these animals. He wouldn’t be able to say, “Okay, now I’m only going to think about myself.” For him, it’s very natural. It’s part of who he is.
Years ago, when I don’t even know when, maybe in the 90s, he took a dog training course in Russia. He learned how to train dogs in this training, and since then, he’s realized how dogs can be amazing friends. Ever since then, he’s felt like he needed to do something to structurally improve the situation of animals in Gaza.
It’s just part of who he is. Like everything about Saeed is about animals, you know. I have access to Sulala’s social media, and the pages he follows are all animal pages.
A couple of years ago, in 2020, there were bushfires in Australia. His profile picture then was of a kangaroo fleeing from the fire. You know he’s not even only thinking about animals in Gaza.
He feels bad for any animal everywhere in the world that suffers. And he also always tells me that any person who is kind to animals is a friend of his. So it’s just part of his being.
Watch the full interview here
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