400 and counting: One woman’s quest to save Aqaba’s stray dogs

two dogs sleeping at the Al-Rabee Society for Nature and Animal Protection shelter
Zatar and Nelly, two dogs rescued from the streets, sleeping at the shelter. Volunteers come to clean cages at 7:00 am to avoid the sweltering Aqaba heat. (Photo: Zoe Sottile/Jordan News)
AQABA — There are more than 400 dogs at Al-Rabee Society for Nature and Animal Protection, and they all want to be your friend.

Walking into the shelter, located just a 15 minute drive from the center of Aqaba, is a riot to the senses. Visitors are immediately greeted by a crowd of Canaani dogs, which are native to the Levant: long-haired, short-haired, brown, grey, white, orange, they all want to sniff your hand or lick your face.اضافة اعلان

The hundreds of dogs at the center are cared for by Rodica Athamneh‎‏.

Athamneh moved to Jordan from Romania over forty years ago. She worked for 18 years and raised her children in the Kingdom. But during the 2010s, “I didn’t have a job, and the kids weren’t home anymore, so I had to do something,” she said in an interview with Jordan News. Her “motherly instinct” was still intact — so she started another kind of family.

Zatar is one of over four hundred dogs who call Al Rabee home. (Photo: Zoe Sottile/Jordan News)

The shelter started in 2015 with just 20 dogs who were being abused on a public beach in Aqaba (one of them, a seven-year-old female with short white hair, is still at Al-Rabee). “It kept on growing and growing. Even now, two days ago we got a puppy,” she said, adding that the puppy was being hit with rocks by children in the neighborhood.

As a cream-colored dog named Lulu rolled over for a belly rub, Athamneh explained that the non-profit organization relies entirely on donations to feed, house, and provide medical treatment for its residents.

The shelter, run entirely by donations and volunteers, has around 45 cages, which host between three and forty dogs each. Lulu is at the far left. (Photo: Zoe Sottile/Jordan News)

The team cooks around 1,800kg of rice each month for the dogs. They collect chicken trimmings from local restaurants and hotels to cook with the rice, and buy bags of dry food for dogs with special needs.

People “don’t know the meaning of a shelter and why I’m putting so much energy into something that is not income-generating,” she said. “It’s love-generating. And they don’t realize how much love you can get. And it’s really worth it, to give this energy to them.”

Growing up on farms in Romania, Athamneh said that she always loved animals. “We lived in the countryside. We all have dogs, we all have cats, chickens, geese.”

Athamneh’s love for animals extends to her own home, which she calls a “small shelter” of its own. She has 50 cats and 4 dogs of her own.

The Canaanis “are really sweet,” she said. “They really love people. They’re obedient, and smart. Everything you want from a dog.”

She pointed to a few dogs, now large adults with white fur and splotches of brown, whom she bottle-fed for two months when they were orphaned puppies. “They are really my babies.”

There are around 45 cages at the shelter, each of which holds as few as three or as many as 40 dogs. Athamneh chooses to prioritize puppies, nursing mothers, and dogs with injuries or that have faced abuse.

Rodica Athamneh, the executive director of the shelter, coordinates with local vets to provide medical care for all the dogs. Blue tags on the ear indicate which dogs have been spayed or neutered. (Photo: Zoe Sottile/Jordan News)

Two vets in Aqaba provide medical care for the dogs. International organizations like Four Paws, an Austria-based animal welfare organization, visit periodically to spay and neuter hundreds of dogs as well, though those visits have been paused due to the pandemic.

Volunteers clean the cages, dole out water and cook food, and help maintain the facilities themselves. Tammy, an American from Michigan working in the tourism industry, volunteers at the shelter six days a week. She told Jordan News that, wishing for a dog of her own, she had wanted to volunteer for years. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she had enough free time to contribute.

Athamneh explained that for those who complain about stray dogs wandering the streets, the solution is simple: spay and neuter the dogs and keep dumpsters covered so the dogs stop scavenging for food.

She hopes that in the future, Al-Rabee will expand to a larger facility in Aqaba, where she can separate the animals into separate sections for puppies, dogs in quarantine, and new dogs.

Dogs of the desert

Bedouin communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and other regions of the Middle East have relied on Canaani dogs to guard their camps for thousands of years. In the late 1980s, a mass cemetery containing thousands of dogs similar in build to modern-day Canaanis were discovered in Israel; the site, dating back to the fourth century BC, is the largest animal cemetery found to date.

The dogs have no unified look, though they tend to be mid-sized and have fur in neutral shades of gold, cream, brown, tan, black, and white.

They’re a common site on the outskirts of Amman, where they roam the streets scavenging for food, and in rural areas where they serve as shepherd dogs, corralling herds of sheep or goats.

Islam is often cited as the reason dogs are unpopular in Jordan, but religious texts actually have mixed views on canines. Dogs feature positively in accounts of the Prophet Mohammad’s life and are not condemned in the Quran.

Several hadiths urge humans to be kind to animals; one recalls a man blessed because he gave water to a thirsty dog. But they are thought of as ritually impure in several schools of Islam, or as guard animals not permitted in the house.

According to Alan Mikhail, a professor of history at Yale University, dogs were once thought of as helpful to city residents in Middle East and kept the streets clean by scavenging. While they were not often kept as pets due to concerns about cleanliness, they were valued and treated kindly.

But around 200 years ago, concerted efforts to get rid of street dogs began in earnest as they began to be thought of as sources of disease.

Today, some living in Jordan think of the Canaani dogs as “like vermin. Like garbage,” said Athamneh. In one episode of abuse, a municipal official was fired after a video of him shooting a stray dog in Zarqa went viral in June. She explained that even when loving owners adopt dogs from her shelter, they are sometimes forced to return them when neighbors complain or call the police.

Above all, the dogs at Al-Rabee seem happy: happy to have a bowl of food, to lay in the shade, and to receive a belly rub.

“At least they are safe here,” said Athamneh. “We do our best.”

Readers interested in donating to support the shelter can reach out to rathamneh1660@gmail.com.

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