Animal lover Hania Jurdak was feeding cats on the American University of Beirut campus when she was approached by a woman who told her: "My daughter is a cat nut like you - that's her phone number. Call her." And so she did. Jurdak and Marguerite Shaarawi connected instantly. Their friendship gave birth to Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA), the first organization of its kind here.
Previously, the founders rescued animals individually - but now, they've decided to collaborate in order to operate on a larger scale with more funding. As Jurdak said, "When people put their efforts together they can achieve something, especially when helping others." Today, BETA counts nine co-founders and around 20 part-time volunteers.
Its mission statement - "What we want to do is find a permanent paradise for these animals" - summarizes BETA's main goals, which are to rescue and provide shelter for stray animals, as well as to raise awareness of animal rights.
BETA has also engaged in a campaign to control Lebanon's ever-growing cat and dog population, spaying and neutering hundreds of animals since the organization was created just over a year ago.
These two methods of sterilization are carried out on female and male animals respectively, and are used to regulate birthrates as well as to reduce the risk of disease and behavioral disorders.
Representatives from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) have praised BETA for its work, judging the conditions of treatment and shelter at BETA to be close to compliance with international standards.
Conscious of the need to promote these standards, the Middle East project director of the WSPA plans to meet with the Lebanese government in order to establish rules and regulations concerning the treatment of animals. Jurdak voiced her support for this step. She said: "It is important for Lebanon to have good welfare conditions; regulations need to be set. For example, dog fights should be illegal."
The WSPA's chief worry is the sustainability of the association in Lebanon given the lack of animal shelters and animal rights organizations, the shortage of funding, and government and public indifference.
BETA's 24-hour rescue hot-line turned out to be a double-edged sword, as it is used as much by people calling BETA when an animal needs to be rescued, as it is by owners who threaten to throw their pets away if the organization does not take them.
"The source of the problem is not the number of animals, but rather the number of people that abandon them," said Jurdak. "This has to be a community-led project."
Elaborating on the importance of the public's role, Shaarawi said: "We'll never stop providing help, but people need to contribute through adoptions and donations."
BETA is first and foremost an animal rescue group, exerting its utmost effort to aid distressed animals around Lebanon. The organization is also committed to developing new ways to encourage adoption of these rescued animals. BETA's progress is a true success story, considering that over 40 dogs were adopted and 65 were rescued in the past six months.
According to Jurdak, "Rescue is a daily encounter with life and death; you become resilient from the inside." Take for example the case of ABC, the kitten that was trapped in ABC mall. It took almost a month of continuous effort from the BETA team to rescue the frightened kitten. The solution was a humane, automatic cat-trapping cage, which was sent straight from London free of charge by the WSPA.
BETA has two dog shelters at its disposal. The first one is in Shoueifat, where the association rents the land. Ten kennels, hosting around twenty dogs, were built thanks to the financial support of Stephanie Hanna, one of the co-founders.
The second shelter is in Bikfaya, at the Hani al-Rayess training school for dogs. Mr. Al-Rayess was generous enough to rent out enough kennels to host close to 50 dogs. BETA will be moving the dogs from Bikfaya to a larger location in Hazmieh next week. The BETA cat shelter is located in Beirut and has dozens of kittens and cats waiting to be adopted.
Being a BETA member is a full-time job. Indeed, the founders and volunteers' commitment to the group means that careers and relationships come second. Often, BETA members also spend a large part of their salaries to help cover the organization's expenses.
"This association would have stopped the moment it started if it wasn't for Dr. Ali Hemadeh, one of BETA's co-founders and the group's vet," said Jurdak. "He offers his services at any time and goes easy on us regarding the payment." Dr. Hemadeh runs the Pet Care Veterinary Clinic on Wardieh street.
BETA finances its activities through its weekly flea market held every Sunday at the Torino Express coffee shop in Gemmayzeh and through special events such as the beach party held at La Voile Bleu a fortnight ago.
The group's next fundraising activity is the upcoming screening of "The Longest Yard" on September 2 at Galaxy center. Tickets will be sold at a price of LL10,000 with the proceeds going to care for the rescued animals.
BETA operates through its Web site to recruit volunteers and find new homes for rescued animals. It has also created a mailing list that currently includes over 1,000 subscribers and that is used as a means to spread awareness about animal rights and responsible pet ownership.
The association is strongly dependent on the financial contributions of local and international donors. In spite of having very few human and material resources at its disposal, the group carries on with the hope of attracting the attention of generous benefactors.