Syrian veterinarians save pets, farm animals who lost their humans in earthquake

Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria
Workers from Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria dug through rubble to find a dog injured by the earthquake and lost from its humans.

An animal sanctuary in rebel-held Syria rescued a cat trapped inside its human’s shop for three days, a chicken stuck in the middle of a flooding river and a dog bleeding profusely from its leg. But it couldn’t save them all.

“Just like humans, we had to do triage,” said Mohamad Youssef, one of two veterinarians with Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria. “But we saved a lot, and we are still searching.”

As hopes for rescuing earthquake survivors in northwest Syria dwindle, roughly a dozen of Ernesto’s workers continued pulling out dogs, cats, goats and chickens from underneath the rubble. With few tools, they worked mostly by hand.

In a region devastated by tragedy upon tragedy, returning lost pets to owners can bring emotional comfort, and gathering up displaced farm animals ensures a steady source of food for a people largely cut off from international trade.

Ernesto’s founder, Alessandra Abidin, said her group was the only one in northwest Syria focused on finding animals – others, like the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, concentrated on finding humans in the rubble before ending those recovery missions Saturday. Without Ernesto’s, the animals left behind by their humans fleeing for their lives, or by those who were killed by collapsed buildings, would probably die.

The team has already brought roughly 35 animals to the sanctuary in Idlib city and treated dozens more in the region, driving 20 to 30 miles to find animals on farms and affected by floods. The rescue operation will continue for roughly another week, Abidin said.

“Humans cannot exist without dogs, without cats, without goats, without chickens,” Youssef said in Arabic. “They are part of our families, like a mom or a dad. They give us food, they give us happiness, they give us comfort. We would not be without them.”

After a traumatic event like an earthquake, Youssef added, pets provide a love that few humans can match, a psychological support that can be a lifeline following so much loss. Earlier this week, the team heard a meow underneath a pile of stones. The team rushed over and dug the cat out with their hands. They later found puppies, too, whose owners had been killed or had fled.

Abidin started Ernesto’s in 2016 at the height of the civil war in Aleppo. Across the country, animals were being left behind by the millions fleeing their homes or the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the conflict. Named after the founder’s late cat, the sanctuary was the only place in northwest Syria dedicated to taking care of animals. What started with 20 cats rose to more than 180 a year later.

Then the sanctuary was bombed and gassed with chlorine, its owners said. Many of the cats were killed. Millions in Syria were internally displaced. The sanctuary relocated west to Kafarna, near the Turkish border, but was bombed again.

They finally built the facility that would be their home in Idlib city and now have roughly 2,000 cats, 30 dogs, five monkeys, three donkeys, a horse, a fox, a chicken and a goat, saved from deserted homes or ravaged villages. Ernesto’s hopes to change the culture of violence toward animals that roam the region in part by going out to villages to sterilize ownerless dogs and other rabid animals. They also offer a free clinic.

When the earthquake woke Youssef on Monday morning, he and his wife and kids dashed outside, where it was pouring and cold. They didn’t know if there’d be an aftershock, so they stayed outside for hours, feeling attacked from below by the earthquake and above by the rain. The electricity went out, and so did the internet.

At Ernesto’s, the cats made strange meows between eerie silences and rumbles. Though none of its animals were hurt, the sanctuary sustained some minor damage.

Youssef and the rest of the team soon decided they had to go out and find surviving animals. The rescue efforts began in full on Wednesday at 6 a.m. with a team of a dozen bringing a makeshift animal ambulance, a hammer, metal cutters and little else.

“We have just our hands, our hearts and our eyes,” Abidin said.

The team found neighborhoods utterly destroyed. In the region, the quake toppled nearly 500 buildings and damaged roughly 1,500 more. More than 2,000 people were killed and nearly 3,000 were injured in what the U.N. aid chief on Saturday described as the “worst event in 100 years in this region.” No one is sure how many animals have died. It looked like a tsunami of earth had taken over the city, Youssef said.

The team quickly got to work in towns outside Idlib city like Haram, Salqin and Al Atarib, walking by piles of stone that used to be buildings as quietly as they could, listening. They set up a Facebook group for locals to contact them about beloved pets trapped or lost. When they heard an animal crying for help, they stopped and zeroed in on where it was, often under rocks or in the middle of a flooded river.

They tended to a dog with a severed groin and bandaged another with a broken leg. They found two cows sitting next to rubble, alive but alone. The large numbers of cats they saved were in shock and wouldn’t eat for days.

“This kind of damage and trauma, we had never seen anything like this before, even with the war,” said Ahmed Khalaf Alyousef, the group’s other veterinarian.

People stopped them on the street to ask for help. Wading through water, three members of a team found a cat that had climbed a tree in the middle of a flooded river. In the leveled villages, Alyousef focused on finding trapped or dying creatures. When he did, he retrieved medicine from his vet pack, treating larger animals in the field and vowing to return with food.

“We are the only team doing what we were doing,” Alyousef said. Like those searching for humans, there was no international aid or other veterinarians there to help treat the injured animals.

In a particularly triumphant moment, they found a cat trapped inside his human’s shop – his owner had not returned since the earthquake – so the rescue workers got down on their stomachs to try to lift the garage door off the ground. It was locked, so it would only go inches off the ground. Little by little, first by its front paws and head, and then its body, they pulled the cat under the door.

Youseff, the other vet, said they need more people and tools to find animals, and more food and vets to keep them alive. Electricity at the animal clinic cuts out frequently, making it near impossible to perform any major operations. They do what they can, stitching wounds, fixing bandages and offering food.

They search for nine or 10 hours a day, until it gets dark, but then have to go home, leaving the trapped animals alone for another day.

“We cried for the animals that died,” he said. “But we cry for the animals that are still out there. We want to find their humans, too. But we don’t have enough people or time to help everyone. We want to help, but we also need help.”