BEIT SAHOUR — Palestinian Diana Babish enters a cage full of dogs at a rare shelter in the West Bank and is immediately swamped by puppies clamouring to be picked up or petted.
Babish, in her 40s, runs the shelter in the Israeli-occupied territory, where residents are not all known to be dog lovers.
The shelter opened 18 months ago in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem after Babish gave up a 20-year career in banking to devote her life to care for the animals.
As she makes her way into the shelter, she pats each puppy as she searches for one particular dog that needs an injection for a bite injury.
Babish has no veterinary or medical background, but the shelter — which is now home to around 40 dogs — has become her labour of love and she has learnt to give shots and other medical treatment.
About 200 puppies and 130 mature dogs have been treated, given affection, fed and prepared for adoption since the shelter opened.
“In the Palestinian areas, animals are subjected to abuse. These animals were created by God,” says Babish, who wears discreet jewellery and make-up.
10,000 strays in Bethlehem
Babish spent much of her own money on setting up the shelter, but eventually needed outside help to meet the steep cost of running the refuge.
Now the shelter receives funding from international groups, including the France-based Brigitte Bardot Foundation as well as from British and German charities.
The cost of running the shelter is high — around $60,000 (Dh220,382) a year, says Babish, as the dogs need 50kg of food each day, much of it leftovers from nearby chicken farms.
She says the biggest challenge is not acquiring the funding but “getting people to accept the idea that animals can live in the streets and you should not exterminate them”.
Babish estimates that there are about 10,000 stray dogs in the Bethlehem district alone, and many people advocate poisoning or shooting them.
The local government has committed to not killing them and Babish says they are working together to find ways to reduce canine birth rates.
A savage attack
Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) once told the story of a man who saw a dog panting with thirst and gave him water. The man was rewarded by God for his good deed and allowed to enter heaven.
And yet many religious authorities consider dogs to be unclean or impure.
Last year, a shelter opened in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.
Kareema Allan, a Palestinian teacher who lives in a town south of the southern West Bank city of Hebron, recalls how she called Babish in a panic when a stray dog had puppies under a tree on her property.
It was during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and she gave the dog food and water.
But one day, “I woke up to the dog’s screams” and found the mother “stabbed in the neck, while her puppies were still breastfeeding”.
Allan cleaned the animal’s wound with iodine and fed the puppies.
She then phoned the shelter and Babish quickly arrived and took both the mother and her puppies to the vet.
They all survived.
An average of two dogs a week are adopted from the Beit Sahour shelter, most of them finding new homes in Israel.