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West Bank's 1st dog shelter promotes animal welfare

Nov. 20, 2015 8:48 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 21, 2015 9:11 A.M.)
(MaanImages/Wisam Aljafari)
By: Ingrid Ostang

Ingrid Ostang is a Norwegian freelance journalist recently based out of Bethlehem.

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- You see them searching for food among garbage. You see them dozing off on the hot concrete by the checkpoints, side by side with the heavily armed Israeli soldiers. You see them with their puppies among old and rusty cars outside town. You see them dead and bloated lying on the pavement, and everybody walks right past.

In this tense part of the world, where conflict rules, why is it that mans best friend is viewed as a pest? In the occupied West Bank, where the hospitality is greater than all our beating hearts combined, dogs are not included.

That is what Diana George Babish, the former branch manager of Jordan Commercial Bank in Bethlehem, wondered as well. In 2014 she started organizing the West Bank's first and only dog shelter, single-handedly collecting more than 40 dogs from the dusty streets of her hometown of Bethlehem.

The idea of a dog shelter started a couple of years ago, after Diana saw how the municipality and locals harmed, tortured and killed many stray dogs in the area.

"I noticed the increasing number of cats and dogs on the street, and how torturing animals in different ways became more and more normal," Babish told Ma'an.

Around 800 stray dogs live on the streets of Bethlehem, and tens of thousands of stray cats and dogs in the governorate as a whole. Although the animals live in areas with low population density, they venture out to local neighborhoods in the morning and evening hours in order to find food.

This exposes both animals and humans to danger. Luay Irzeiqat, the Palestinian Authority police spokesman said earlier this year that the police offices in the West Bank receive many complaints about stray dogs attacking children, elderly and livestock, as well as destroying crops.

"We are trying to fight the phenomenon, and mostly it is restricted to poisoning the animals," he said in May 2015.

However, stray dogs are also routinely killed by a hired gun. The Bethlehem municipality's health department confirms this, and although it says it does not agree with the method, it seems be the only option as of now.

Many locals also resort to shooting stray dogs.

"Quite often, the dogs are shot in the balls -- or in the stomach, if they are pregnant. In this way they are left suffering. Many of them die a slow and painful death," one of Diana's volunteers told Ma'an.

Diana is sure of one thing: killing stray dogs is not a sustainable solution to the problem.

"The main cause of the large number of stray dogs is that they continue to breed freely. I believe that spaying and neutering is the answer, but so far I have not had the money to provide this," she says.

Instead Diana has prioritized getting the sick and wounded dogs off the streets. For many Palestinians though, protecting these stray animals is not a priority.

"I don't know. But people forget that if we solve this problem in a more civil way, we will contribute to protecting our children, our health and also our environment."

With her small group of volunteers, it is not easy when 40 dogs are to be fed and cared for daily. Most of the work Diana does herself, and in the evening she contacts possible donors, trying to raise money for the project. It is not a simple task.

"There are many wealthy families here, but they are not interested in donating money. Not the way the situation is now. But I have a large network, and I wont give up," she says defiantly.

Luckily, Diana's organization has made a connection to an animal shelter in Israel, which has promised that if Diana and her helpers find foster homes for the dogs from Bethlehem, they will provide the chipping and vaccinations that are needed for the dogs if they are to be adopted into Israel.

"This is a start, and I am very happy about it," Diana says.

Until recently, the 40 dogs have been kept in an unfinished house in a hilly area in Beit Sahour. The house is under construction, the floors are made of cement and there is no electricity or running water.

Last week Diana moved the dogs to her new dog shelter, also in Beit Sahour. She has worked hard to find enough money to build it, spending mostly from her own pockets.

"The new shelter is better than what we have now, but it still doesn't have enough space like a real dog shelter ought to have."

It is, however a first step towards showing the Palestinian people that there exists a local organization that cares about animals.

"And in this way the world can understand that there are people here concerned with animal welfare," she says, while organizing the food for the dogs into separate trays.

Among all the hyperactive dogs this particular day, a tiny puppy is sitting in the corner. She is sitting there all alone, while her seven brothers and sisters are throwing themselves at the food. She is skinnier than the others, and Diana lifts her up to check on her. The puppy has to go to the vet, right away.

"In Bethlehem there are not many vets that know about pets. Goats and cows, yes, but not so much cats and dogs. We need to get her to the vet in Jerusalem," she says.

Time is ticking. Diana calls several drivers she knows in order to transport the puppy across the checkpoint. When she finally pulls up outside the clinic, the vet is about to close.

We run in with the puppy in our arms. She gets treated, and the next few days she is given intravenous fluids every half hour. Soon she will need a home. Who will take care of her then?

Many of the people who actually own dogs in Bethlehem, keep them on the hard, cemented rooftops, where they live their lives, barking away at everything that moves down on the streets. This is not good enough for Diana.

"It is important for me to find people that know how to take care of our dogs," she stresses.

Diana will do whatever she can to see that her dogs continue on living good lives.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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