The tense, age-old drama played itself out in a dusty suburb of Cairo. A circle of faces gazed raptly at the glinting knives, the white-coated surgeons and meek assistants with sponges at the ready.
But this was a hospital operation scene with a difference. Sunlight filtering through green leaves lit the operating table, a canvas-covered platform. And the patient, steadied by thick ropes, was a mule.
The doctors worked through a dense cacophony of sound. The barking of 91 caged dogs and the neighing of two dozen assorted horses, mules and donkeys reverberated across the walled paddock in seeming sympathy with their prostrate colleague. After a large flask of anesthetic, the old brown mule could hardly have cared less. She lay on her side oblivious to everything including her own ugly leg tumor now being scraped and cauterized by head veterinarian, Dr. Wadid Abdel Malek. Later, she might rejoin the two million other draft animals on the streets of Cairo. In the meantime Dr. Wadid had prescribed the first holiday of her working lifetime—a month's recuperation in the adjoining stables.
The mule was just one of seven other draft animals that had arrived unannounced at the permanently open gates of this hospital the day before. These stood now in the stables encircling the paddock, awaiting their turn on the operating table or in the treatment pens, afflicted with the variety of ills that befall animals with a hard-working life on city streets.
Word of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) has permeated the network of Cairo's cart-owners. They know they can get free treatment for their sick here, and possibly even some compensation for lost working hours. They arrive, sometimes up to 12 in a day, leading their sagging donkeysor even pushing the limping horses before them on flat carts.
The PDSA, a charity organization with about 1,000 clinics around the world, was born in Cairo. A sprightly English matron, a certain Mrs. Dickin, started the first dispensary in 1917 and was subsequently decorated by the King of England.
Now Dr. Wadid's staff is all Egyptian and one of his veterinarians also runs a busy dispensary in the working-class district of Boulac.
Rich and poor alike bring in their animals—47,000 cases were treated last year, of which 1,500 needed serious operations. Any and every animal is taken on, from monkeys to goats with smallpox, chickens with fowl fever and greedy donkeys with whole corn cobs stuck down their throats.
The hospital keeps financially afloat through donations from the PDSA head office in Britain, the Egyptian government and a kind of Robin Hood arrangement where the rich are made to pay for the poor.
Anyone that can afford to board out a pet, can afford to pay, is the vets' rationale. The fees from the 91 dogs, among them the Defense Minister's black poodle, some five cats and the gray parrot of famous singer Nagat Al-Saghira, all contributed toward the brown mule's operation expenses. Even the two dollars paid every month by a small boy for boarding his turtle helped.
The presence of a rich man's dog in the hospital kennels usually means the owner is on holiday, whereas a donkey here could mean semi-starvation for a family. Some Cairenes still depend on the draft animal for their daily bread. Thus when Shenadi Negm's donkey fell strangely sick the man was desperate. He arrived one blazing noon and waited uncertainly at the hospital gates, his donkey rigid on the cart it used to pull. Now, after two weeks in the hospital, the white donkey looked healthier than its owner. Negm, a thin figure in a brown robe and white turban, stood beside the special treatment pen as he had done every day since the donkey was admitted. He smiled happily, and shyly produced a white paper from the folds of his robe.
"Yes, he's laughing now, but you should have seen his face a few days ago," Dr. Wadid said dryly. "The donkey could barely move his head... tetanus, from a nail in the hoof. The paper is the donkey's discharge paper, 10 days from now. Until then, we feed the man, give him some money for his family and treat the donkey free."
Dr. Wadid, who would rather spend his day with the horses and donkeys than with the endless stream of pets that come into the "out-patients" examination room, turned to watch a chestnut mare led towards him. She could barely shuffle, her legs strangely bent apart, stiff as four stilts. Inch by inch she was guided into the shallow trough of healing liquids and tied fast.
"I don't know that we can ever cure her," Dr. Wadid said sadly. "She has laminitis, an inflammation of the hooves. We did manage to save her foal, though, so that is one consolation. He had an infectious catarrh." The colt danced skittishly beside his mother, seemingly unconcerned by the long, healing scar across his neck and unaware of his own destiny of drudgery that might already have proved fatal to his mother. Sometimes Dr. Wadid knows from the start that the broken old case before him will never be able to pull its load again. He then gives it a stable of straw, plenty of good food and tender treatment for a full 10 days. Afterwards he puts it painlessly to death.
"I cannot do this to an animal, however mercifully, without some reward for its working life," he explained. "And all our horses and donkeys in Egypt deserve one good holiday." Before Dr. Wadid can put a horse to death, the owner must first agree. The government will usually chip in with a donation of 25 percent of the animal's value.
Meanwhile, in the out-patient clinic, a yellow mongrel dog belonging to a young army lieutenant was sadly accepting a new series of injections and the indignity of having its temperature taken. It stood awkwardly, its newly-shaved hindquarters paralyzed from being hit by a passing truck.
When an owner cannot bring in his animal himself, a white air-conditioned ambulance goes to the rescue. A foreign donation, like the new X-ray apparatus, it also rounds up the starving stray dogs and cats that too often stalk the streets of Cairo like shadows. These receive an overdose of anesthetic, then are buried in a corner of the hospital grounds. Unlike the rich men's pets such as "Bambino the Faithful" or "Dikxy Baby," with marble slabs to mark their grassy graves, the strays' deaths remain as obscure as their" lives. There is no plaque, either, for the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser's Siamese cat, which is said to have refused to eat on the death of his owner and died himself 15 days later.
Perhaps most important of all is the work being done by the PDSA on the side—educating a new generation of Egyptians into giving animals a fair deal. The hospital insists many of the problems, particularly those of the draft animals, could have been avoided if treatment were given promptly. Mostly it is a question of ignorance—the owner vaguely believes the sickness will cure itself, or he is terrified at the thought he may lose his only source of income. In a few cases, the owner also is indifferent to his animal's plight.
Galal Sirry, nephew of a former prime minister, heads the Egyptian Society for the Extending of Mercy to Animals, as well as the PDSA's board of directors. A big man, he has thrown himself with infectious enthusiasm into promoting their cause. He tirelessly coaxes donations for the hospital in all directions, but his real interest lies in a "mercy to animals" program which, he believes, schools must start "at a very young age." Sirry backs up his crusade with quotations from the Holy Koran: "There is no animal in the earth, nor bird that flies on its wings, but (they are) communities like ourselves...," or from the Prophet Muhammad: "There is no man who kills a sparrow without cause but God will question him for it." At the same time he sends out thousands of "be-kind-to-animals" posters to Cairo's schools.
Sirry's great pride is the overwhelming response he had from children throughout the country to a painting competition organized by the World Wildlife Fund. He interpreted this as a showing of deep interest in animals by Egyptian children, and to his delight, they carried off several of the top prizes. Soon Sirry hopes to see some 750 schools in Cairo devoting 10 minutes in their daily hour of religious instruction to animal care. An animal club, which has enrolled some 700 youngsters, works toward the same end.
"We can only help such a tiny percentage of sick animals at the hospital," Sirry says, "What we need in Egypt is animal education."
Helen Gibson was a UPI correspondent in Vietnam and spent more than a year in the Middle East.