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Egypt's once-reviled street dogs get the chance at a better life

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CAIRO — Karim Hegazi spends his days in a Cairo clinic taking care of animals long considered a menace in Egypt.

Stray dogs roam in almost every Cairo neighborhood — lurking in construction sites, scavenging through trash and howling nightly atop parked cars. The government says there's around 15 million of them. They bite some 200,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization, and spread rabies, one of the world’s most lethal diseases.

And if that wasn't reason enough to feel revulsion toward dogs, a famous Islamic saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad warns that angels won’t enter your home if there’s a dog inside.

Yet after centuries of stigma, the street dogs of Egypt are finding popular acceptance, and along with it, surging grassroots support. That includes adoption and medical care, as well as spaying and neutering to keep them from producing more puppies on the streets. Volunteers armed with giant fishing nets and tranquilizer darts embark on regular missions to catch, vaccinate and sterilize dogs before letting them loose.

These efforts are making inroads against the prevailing government policy of extermination by poison.

“I’ve seen a major shift ... people are seeing a value in strays,” said Hegazi, 32, from his veterinary hospital in the upscale suburb of Maadi. He says he's no longer treating just foreign pooches, but also a growing number of adopted “baladi” dogs, the once-reviled Egyptian street breed. Even pious Muslim clients are taking in street dogs. Hegazi says they often reconcile their religious beliefs and love of dogs by keeping them in grassy yards or on rooftops.

Egypt’s upper and middle classes have increasingly adopted Western-inspired ideas of dog ownership. Pet hotels, cafes and grooming emporiums are sprouting up in major Egyptian cities. Fueled by the rise of social media, enthusiasm for Cairo’s dogs is “moving beyond snob culture,” said local advocate Amina Abaza.

A Facebook forum for vet recommendations exploded into a community of 13,000 pet lovers trading stray rescue stories. Dozens of new shelters coordinate adoptions online, flooding Instagram feeds with images of abandoned puppies.

What has surfaced online is spilling into the streets. Some of Cairo's more well-to-do districts are mobilizing spay and neuter teams to counter what advocates describe as gruesome government methods to control the dog population.

The General Organization for Veterinary Services, an arm of the agricultural ministry, routinely sends authorities to kill strays by scattering poison in streets overnight, according to a dozen activists and residents. They say they’ve woken up to find carcasses piled on curbs, or sick dogs wailing in distress.

“It’s a horrible way to die,” said Mohamed Shehata, founder of Egyptian Vets for Animal Care, or EVAC. It's the country’s first spay and neuter program, also based in Maadi.

The government organization did not respond to questions about its policy. But in a recent report, it described street dogs as a “time bomb that threatens our children,” and defended the “merciful killing of dogs that are harmful to people,” citing Islamic law.

After the French invaded Egypt in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte's troops spent two nights shooting all of Cairo's street dogs because of their raucous noise. According to American historian Juan Cole, they were likely employed as informal watchdogs in the city’s winding alleys. Major dog eradication campaigns in Egypt stemmed from the city's explosive growth in the early 1800s, when dogs became scavengers dependent on Cairo’s ubiquitous mounds of garbage, said Alan Mikhail, professor of Ottoman history at Yale University. As part of a public hygiene push, authorities trapped, shot and poisoned dogs en masse.

These days, a consensus is emerging among experts that “poison is not a real solution to rabies or to overpopulation,” said Shehata. A toxic substance called citrinin is used to kill off dogs, but most of it ends up seeping into soil and cement, poisoning gardeners, garbage workers and children playing in the street. Culling street dogs doesn’t stop the spread of disease either, he added, as over 70% of the stray population must be vaccinated to attain herd immunity.

Shehata described his group’s spaying and neutering efforts as “a more humane, scientific, and effective way,” to regulate the country’s strays. His group kicked off Egypt's first mass rabies vaccination drive this month, inspired by the WHO's goal to eliminate human deaths from dog-transmitted rabies by 2030.

On a misty morning last weekend, teams of volunteers scampered after the wild dogs in Maadi, bolting down wide boulevards and trash-littered train tracks. A cacophony of yelps and barks filled the air as terrified dogs were trapped in nets, then injected with vaccines. Neighbors woken by the noise watched from their balconies in bewilderment. The method may appear ruthless, but Shehata insists it's for the best, and keeps the dogs rabies-immune for a year.

Volunteers also spay and neuter strays at the clinic. The dogs are dropped off where they were caught, with a notch cut in their ear to show they've been sterilized. The model is being replicated in at least five central Cairo districts, where local groups say they’ve seen dog populations stabilize or decline and the threat of rabies wane, although the government doesn't make rabies infection figures public.

Vigilante hunters still scatter poison in dog food and request government exterminators, said Rasha Hussein, a Maadi resident who runs a vet training center outside Cairo. But she said efforts by groups like EVAC have encouraged compassion. Residents now coordinate meal deliveries and medical checks for ear-tagged dogs that have become a mainstay in their areas. Just five years ago, EVAC volunteers were chased out of the neighborhood.

Shehata says his teams have treated some 10,000 stray dogs over the last few years.

Egypt’s push follows successes in similar developing countries. Animal welfare proponents hope these gains can spark a worldwide movement.

Turkey’s cities, which once promoted systematic slaughter of street dogs, now provide strays with government-sponsored medical evaluations, sterilization and shelter. Indian provinces historically ravaged by rabies, where Shehata trained, have driven down death rates through coordinated campaigns.

But leading veterinarians say Egypt's efforts still lack state funding or a legal framework to protect animals, meaning the future of the country’s street dogs remains uncertain.

“We will do our best to reach our targets,” said Hegazi while carrying his next patient, barking and snorting, into the exam room. “But it'll take a much longer time.”

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