After the Revolution in Egypt, Horses Are Dying

Here's my first-hand account from the base of the pyramids.

Starving horse in Egypt
Hungry horses wait for food near the pyramids in Egypt, February 2011. All photos by Sarah Blakemore.

I live in Egypt, and it has been almost a month since the revolution began here. Political and social gains have been made, and much of the stability has returned to the country. What hasn’t returned: the tourists.

According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, tourism accounts for 12.6 percent of the employment in the country and 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product, making Egypt heavily dependent on tourist income.

In ordinary times, a low estimate for unemployment is 10 percent, not taking into account the underemployed. The halt of tourism combined puts the post-revolution unemployment rate at a staggering 22.6 percent.

Many people are going without basic necessities, but nowhere is it more apparent than at the base of the iconic Egyptian pyramids. Guides have been without work. Rumors around Cairo are that the horses, donkeys and camels are dying in large numbers.

After poking around a bit, I called Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA) and asked about the problem. A woman named Mona tells me that they have a feeding program and that I am welcome to observe.

Egypt Horses Dying

A volunteer coordinator, Alaa, picks up me and my colleague at 11 a.m. the next day. Alaa introduces us to Beth, a British volunteer who has a degree in veterinary nursing. She lives in Cairo with her husband, who works here.

We drive down a dusty road next to the fence that surrounds the pyramids. On one side are the pyramids; on the other are stables full of horses, donkeys and camels that are used to take tourists on rides around the pyramids and through the surrounding desert.

Alaa explains that oftentimes these guides live hand to mouth, relying on tourist money and food donations (the odd carrot or apple fed to the horse) to feed their animals. Without that income, the people are left without money to feed their families — or their animals.

As we pull up to Sondos Stables, the stable that ESMA is partnered with to distribute food to needy horses, Beth hops out of the car to take care of administrative issues. Alaa leads us to the horse graveyard, a vacant lot filled with garbage.

(Here is a photo. It may be unsuitable for some viewers.)

There are bodies of decaying horses all around. Some of them have been partially buried, others have been left uncovered. The stench is nauseating, but in my shock I overcome my urge to vomit. I ask Alaa if the Egyptians around the pyramids care that their horses are dying or if they only see these horses as expendable tools. He responded,

“This is the only job they know. They have been doing this for generations. The horses would not be dying like this if they had a way to sustain them. I saw a man sitting next to his dead horse, crying. I asked him if he was crying because he would no longer have a way to feed his family or if he was sad about the horse. The man replied that this horse was like his family; it had been with him for 18 years.”

We walked back to the stables and waited for food to arrive. People are milling about, waiting for what would be their only hope.

I spend some time speaking with Beth, who tells me the most heartbreaking thing is that they often run out of food and have to turn people away. A triage system  has been devised to feed the horses that are most needy and the ones that have been without food for the longest.

Owners arrive with their ID and their horses. Beth and other volunteers assess each of the horses while Alaa writes down the details of the owner — his name, ID number and how many horses he has in need of feeding. The next time, the owner will not be required to bring all of his horses, which will cut down on the chaos.

The food is delayed and frustrations begin to show. When the food finally arrives, a huge crowd forms around Alaa, everyone jostling for position. One young boy is set on by the crowd and beaten until one of the volunteers steps in.

Festering wound on a horse
Festering wound on a horse

Malnourished, Injured

I walk through the crowds of horses. Everywhere I look there is a malnourished, injured horse. Saddle sores and open wounds are a common site. Often the horsemen’s equipment is inadequate or broken; many of the nose straps on the bridles have been replaced with chain link that digs into the horses’ noses leaving a gaping wound.

Some of the owners are uncaring, annoyed by the delay in the food, yanking their horses around harshly. Most, however, are anxious that their animals are taken care of. Confusing me with one of the veterinary volunteers, I am asked repeatedly to look at wounds or find bandages.

Two of the volunteers, Kate and Julie, have devised a brilliant strategy for tackling the nose wound problem. They use sanitary napkins to wrap the chain and then cover it with medical dressing. It works as a cotton buffer between the chain and the horse’s nose. I bandage a few noses.

By the end of the day, the four volunteers have fed more than 300 horses. Beth tells me of their hope that they will soon be able to incorporate an animal husbandry course into their work. Most of these people want to take good care of their horses; they just don’t know how.

She speaks angrily of tourists who come here and judge these people for the condition of their horses but don’t realize that the owners do not live any better than their animals.

Food arrives for horses near the Eyptian pyramids.
Food arrives for horses near the Eyptian pyramids.

How You Can Help Now

The good news is that you can donate. Please go to Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals website. Every little bit helps. Here’s what your money can do:

  • Feed one horse for one day: $3.40 USD.
  • One crate of medical ointment for treating sores: $3.40.
  • Hoof care for 10 horses: $17.

Your money will go directly to helping the horses. ESMA has only a skeletal staff, and almost all outreach work is done through volunteers. I’ve met them in person, been to their facilities and watched their distribution program. It is legitimate and is giving help to people and animals that desperately need it.

And for those who say that we should worry about people before animals: These people will starve without the income they get from these animals. By feeding these animals, you are feeding the families of these horsemen.

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