Lebanon's pets abandoned in droves as economic crisis bites

NGOs say cats and dogs are the latest victims of a series of crises affecting Lebanon

From an old pig ranch in the hills above Beirut, a cacophony of barks bounce across the valley. For the past 15 years, the farm has been home to dogs, not pigs – a haven for a rapidly increasing number of abandoned pets.

There is Stoli, a mixed breed found wandering the streets of Mar Mikhael – a neighbourhood in east Beirut known for its nightlife. His name is inspired by the vodka – Stolichnaya, of course.

The shelter is run by Helena Hesayne, an architect-turned matriarch for all dogs in need of a loving shelter. When the 2006 war with Israel broke out, she began sheltering the hundreds of animals left behind by those fleeing. The shelter is vast, and that war is long over, but a financial crisis and the global pandemic are today pushing it to its limits.

Before it was maybe two to three dogs per week. Now it’s non-stop

Helena Hesayne

The abandonment of cats and dogs is nothing new for Lebanon, yet Ms Hesayne said it has reached alarming new levels since the country’s financial crisis began to bite.

“A few years back, it was only mixed breed. It was very rare to have a pure breed dog. But people now are dumping anything.

“For the past two years, the numbers went up tremendously. Before it was maybe two to three dogs per week. Now it’s non-stop, non-stop, non-stop.”

BETA – the organisation behind the shelter – will move to new larger premises near by in the coming days, but it will not provide much respite.

Dog ownership – once a growing fashion across all classes and sects, has become an unaffordable luxury. Those who can afford to are increasingly leaving the country, and their pets are often collateral damage in the brain drain.

Others simply can not afford the vet's bills and dog food. More and more pets are left abandoned in the streets, or on the doorsteps of the handful of Beirut’s pet shelters. Others are shot by their departing owners.

Ms Hesayne is deeply frustrated by those who migrate, yet opt to leave their animals behind.

“They say they are travelling, and they don’t want to take the dog with them. I say, what, aren’t you taking your kids?

“They get upset at how I’m comparing the dog to their kids – because it’s the same responsibility,” she said.

It is not just dogs – cats face the same predicament, said Maggie Shaarawi, who runs Animals Lebanon. The NGO runs a shelter for cats in Beirut’s Hamra district.

“If we weren’t here, I don’t know what would happen to all these animals.

“At the moment due to Covid, and the economic crash, we are not able to do any fundraising. Our survival depends on the generosity of donors online.

“It’s an impossible equation, prices are up, money is stuck in the bank and people locally are unable to donate because they cannot survive themselves.

“There are more animals coming in and less income, it’s just doing the maths.”

For now, organisations such as BETA and Animals Lebanon are looking abroad for help. Whether it is donations or rehoming opportunities.

Unlike in Lebanon, the Covid-19 pandemic left pet shelters in Europe and North America well under capacity, with scores of people adopting pets as a means to deal with lockdowns in their respective countries.

The shelters of Lebanon are certain to continue overfilling for the time being, but the NGOs fighting for the animals being left behind say they will never put a healthy animal to sleep.

Updated: May 21, 2021 01:34 PM

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