Stray animals and Ahmed Salim's mission to change how they're cared for in the Middle East

Through 1001 Paws he hopes reviving regional traditions will support welfare organisations

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“I would like to see, in my lifetime, a revival of the golden age of animal care in the Middle East,” says Ahmed Salim, founder of the non-profit animal protection organisation 1001 Paws.

A philanthropic entrepreneur, Salim is a one-man force for change. In 2006, he launched an educational programme called 1001 Inventions, to teach children about the largely forgotten contribution to maths and science made by Arabs throughout history.

As part of this, Salim created the short film 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets in 2010, starring Ben Kingsley. In 2014, he and his team joined forces with Unesco to make 1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham, a film starring Omar Sharif about the 11th-century scientist Ibn Al-Haytham, who deciphered how humans see. In 2018, in conjunction with the World Food Bank, 1001 Inventions helped deliver educational programmes and nutritious meals to children in refugee camps, under a scheme called 1001 Meals. To date, Salim's efforts and initiatives have impacted more than 450 million people.

Now, through 1001 Paws, Salim is siphoning his energy into helping stray and abandoned animals across the region and believes the UAE is perfectly placed to be at the forefront of this endeavour.

Fittingly, Salim's projects are named after the famed book 1001 Arabian Nights. It was one of the many works to come out of the Islamic Golden Age, and Salim invites people to look back at, take pride in and be inspired by a collective history that spans 600 years of achievements and inventions across mathematics, science, literature and the arts.

Part of that age of enlightenment, Salim explains, included an empathetic attitude towards all living creatures.

“I say revival because this is not something new,” he says. “This region, and across the Muslim world, has a legacy of over 1,000 years of animal well-being and care to all living things, without prejudice.

“There are fantastic stories from the history of the Middle East that show this region can be a champion for animal welfare,” he adds.

One of the figures he cites is the 8th-century Iraqi scholar Abu Uthman Amr ibn Baḥr al-Kinani al-Basri, better known as Al-Jahiz. As the author of The Book of Animals, Al-Jahiz penned seven volumes that are widely regarded as the first study of evolution, with ideas so ahead of their time, many would not resurface for another thousand years, courtesy of Charles Darwin. Showing these books to children today, Salim says, is a great way to teach them about how to see animals in a different, more empathetic way, something he has first-hand experience of.

“Ten years ago, I was someone who had never had a pet, never had any kind of contact or relationship with any animal,” he says. His childhood in the UK was filled only with people. “My view of the world was very human-centric — I operated within the human realm. Everything was about 'people problems' and 'people solutions'.”

However, this was upended when a cat entered his life. Despite dedicating much of his time to helping others, he explains how it was only when the cat entered his home and he adopted him, that his journey began.

Simsim, the cat that inspired 1001 Paws, studies a book advocating animal care

"When Simsim entered my home, it had a knock-on effect on my personal growth and my evolution to be more conscious, more sensitive to the suffering in this world," he says.

“It was very clear to me that when I embraced and accepted this cat as part of my family, I had the capability to be loving and caring to another being that had no voice.”

This epiphany coalesced while touring the region with 1001 Inventions, as he and his team began noticing vast numbers of stray cats, uncared for and often riddled with disease. “It troubled me that the cat in my home, with very simple effort from my side such as providing clean water and some food, was a clean, healthy being. If it is so simple, why did the street cats have to suffer?”

Wherever the team held an exhibition, Salim began making arrangements for animals to be cared for. “We began taking care of the cats around the venues. We brought in volunteers from those areas — and I am talking across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt — and managed a network of volunteers. It was essentially our legacy after we had packed up and left. And every single colony is still being looked after.”

In early 2020, the pandemic descended and much of the world was forced into lockdown. Cat colonies, which survive on the streets and are heavily reliant on being supplied with food, suddenly faced starvation.

“There was this crisis as people looking after colonies suddenly could not go out to feed these hungry animals. I was in lockdown in the UK, so had nothing to do except sit on my computer and co-ordinate with 700 volunteers and rescuers across the Middle East, to maintain the supply of food and care for the animals.”

Remarkably, he was able to re-mobilise everyone. It also inspired him to make the arrangements more permanent. “Out of that, I decided to formalise that network and turn it into an organisation. That's when we created 1001 Paws.”

Cats at a 1001 Paws shelter. Photo: 1001 Paws

Over the course of his research, however, Salim quickly discovered that cities across the Middle East are swamped with out-of-control populations of stray and abandoned cats and dogs, with rescuers, shelters, animal welfare charities and even government municipalities overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. With no natural predators and no curtails on breeding, hundreds of thousands of animals are left to fend for themselves.

Thousands will be hit by cars, which kills or maims the animals while endangering drivers. At the same time, countless people — children in particular — risk being chased or even bitten by packs of semi-starving dogs. In turn, these incidents are taken as justification for the often brutal violence being meted out to all and any animal within striking distance. Without a wide-reaching and co-ordinated intervention, Salim realised the future was grim.

He believes the only permanent, humane solution is a sustained and well-orchestrated programme of vaccination and sterilisation, called Trap, Neuter, Release. Via TNR, over time, populations will stabilise, while vaccinations will ensure that diseases such as rabies and feline panleukopenia virus (feline distemper) are kept in check. “There are scientific journals around the world showing that launching a comprehensive castration and neutering, and vaccination programme across stray and abandoned animals is the number one solution," he says.

While the scale is daunting, the results speak for themselves. “The reason you don’t find stray cats wandering the streets of London or New York, is because of systematic vaccination and sterilisation programmes that have lasted decades.”

1001 Paws is currently reaching out to property owners and managers, to secure permission for managed colonies of cats (easily identified by a clipped left ear tip) to remain in specific areas. Rather than regarding the animals as feral pests to be removed, 1001 Paws is trying to persuade the owners to view the cats as making a contribution to the area.

“In the UAE, we have 23 managed colonies of cats around properties that have given approval. Not a single one of those properties has had to call pest control. Why? Because the best defence against new stray cats entering an area is to maintain a small number of cats that are vaccinated and neutered. They work for the property, they protect the location, and they are on duty 24 hours a day. If they see another cat from outside, they will fight it off.”

Simply looking away is partly why the feral cat population has reached a crisis point. For example, while many think the Arabian Mau is indigenous to the region, that distinction belongs only to the Arabian sand cat, a creature so elusive it has not been seen in the wild here since 2015, and exists largely only in zoos.

“Which means that 99.99 per cent of the cats in the UAE are not from here," he says. "So how did they get here? This is not a natural habitat for cats, it is a desert climate with very limited access to water. There is a human involvement that has to be recognised, and that is an added responsibility on us to do something about it.”

Now, a huge boost for 1001 Paws is news that Sami Yusuf has joined as a member-ambassador. The hope is that the award-winning British musician, singer and songwriter will bring awareness to a whole new audience.

“We are excited,” Salim says. “Sami has a long history of involvement with animals, and he represents through his music, universal human values that people really appreciate. There is a lot of synergy between what he represents and stands for — rediscovering traditions and reviving traditional arts — and how we are trying to revive compassion in the region for animals.”

Updated: December 29, 2022, 12:24 PM