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MONTH: January/February 2008

Mark Twain, Dorothy Brooke, & the struggle to improve equine care at the Giza pyramids

CAIRO -- Touring the Mediterranean as a foreign correspondent in 1867-1868, U.S. author Mark Twain sent home extensive notes about
the animals he met, later included in his book The Innocents Abroad (1869).

At the Giza pyramids in Egypt, Twain found--to his surprise--that, "The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and willing to prove it.

They were the best we had found anywhere...They had all been newly barbered, and were exceedingly stylish." Twain's only criticism of the Giza donkey care was that, "The saddles were the high, stuffy, frog-shaped things we had known in Ephesus and Smyrna."

Equine care standards had declined markedly by 1930, when Dorothy Brooke arrived in Cairo as the wife of a British military officer. Many of the most neglected and abused animals, Brooke learned, were sold to Egypt by the British, Australian, and U.S. armies after World War I. She wrote to The Morning Post about their plight, raised the funds to buy or retire 5,000 former cavalry horses, an extraordinary feat in the depths of the Great Depression, and in 1934 founded the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo.

Eventually renamed in Brooke's honor, the Old War Horse became the hub of an institution now serving 650,000 equines per year. About a third of the work is in Egypt, with other projects in Guatemala, Kenya, Afghanistan, Israel, India, Pakistan, Palestine, and Ethiopia.

Equine care consultant Sharon Cregier of Prince Edward Island, Canada, told ANIMAL PEOPLE after a 1996 visit to the Giza pyramids that she "could spot the Brooke horses and donkeys by their neatly trimmed feet, fitted headcollars, and chafe-proof girths."

But in recent years the Brooke has met resistance from stable owners to work seen as hurting business. Brooke mobile clinics are often obliged to work outside of tourist hours, limiting their ability to provide care.

As an alternative approach, the Brooke plans to begin certifying stables, in hopes that those recognized for providing quality animal care will win enough business to force the rest to improve.

An affiliate of the Britsh-based Donkey Sanctuary in 2003 began work in the Faisal district of Giza, under Mourad Ragheb, DVM. The Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt fields two mobile clinics five days a week, assisted by Mostotour Veterinary College students.

But at the pyramids, Animal Help Ahmedabad founder Rahul Sehgal told ANIMAL PEOPLE, the care of many of the working horses and donkeys has deteriorated to roughly what Twain observed in Damascus. There, Twain found, the stable owners "have no love for their horses, no sentiment of pity for them, and no knowledge of how to treat them or care for them. The Syrian saddle-blanket is a quilted mattress two or three inches thick. It is never removed from the horse, day or night. It gets full of dirt and hair, and becomes soaked with sweat. It is bound to breed sores. These pirates never think of washing a horse's back."

Sehgal mentioned all of these problems at the Giza pyramids, plus saddles with protruding wires or nails that jabbed the animals made to wear them. Other observers described similar, in slightly less detail.

ANIMAL PEOPLE found that the horse care was not much better, if at all, at a large riding stable just outside the hotel where the Middle East Network for Animals conference was held in December 2007.

Conference attendees confirmed the ANIMAL PEOPLE assessment. If the riding stable horses were in better condition than those at the pyramids, the major reason appeared to be lighter use.

Many of Twain's other observations about animals in North Africa and the Middle East still resonate. Twain in Tangier found that "Moors reverence cats as something sacred," so Spanish and French colonial overlords terrorized the citizens by eating cats and using cat pelts to make a rug.

"Once a sultan proposed to kill off all the dogs here," Twain wrote at the end of several pages about the street dogs of Istanbul, "and did begin the work--but the populace raised such a howl of horror that the massacre was stayed. After a while he proposed to remove them all to an island in the Sea of Marmora. No objection was offered, and a shipload or so was taken away. But when it came to be known that somehow or other the dogs never got to the island, but always fell overboard in the night and perished, another howl was raised and the transportation scheme was dropped. The dogs remain in peaceable possession of the streets."

More than 130 years later Istanbul became one of the first cities in the Islamic world to officially adopt a no-kill dog control policy--albeit often ignored and circumvented, even after neuter/return became the official policy of the whole of Turkey in 2004.