As soon as the roars of Israeli warplanes echo across the skies of the coastal enclave, hundreds of stray animals dart for safety, terrified and shaking in fear.
“The dogs recognise the sound of the planes right before the bomb drops when the sound of the plane changes, and they all start to cry … they are just as scared as humans,” Annelies Keuleers, a volunteer at the Sulala Animal Rescue — the Gaza Strip’s first and only charity rescuing abandoned animals — tells Dawn.com.
Most stray animals are hiding all day, she says, but when they do come out, Saeed Al Err is always there waiting for them with food and water.
The 51-year-old Palestinian, founder of the Sulala Animal Rescue, has been rescuing stray animals in the enclave for almost two decades, and even now, amid relentless bombing. His shelter in Gaza City houses 400 dogs and over 100 cats.
“After the Israeli army issued the evacuation warning, Saeed managed to move all the cats to an apartment in the south,” says Keuleers, who has been in constant contact with Saeed over the phone.
However, she continues, Saeed is unable to leave the area now as he has run out of fuel and hence cannot reach the dog shelter.
Adel, one of two Sulala employees, was previously feeding and visiting the dog shelter but he has now moved to a school with his family. “He says he has left 30 bags of dog food with small openings, barrels of water, and access to his house,” Keuleers adds.
Saeed plans to visit the shelter as soon as there is a ceasefire, and also hopes he can travel north to rescue the wounded animals there.
“Saeed is okay with risking his life for animals but he also knows there is no use to him if he is dead. So at this moment, he is doing what he can in the circumstances he is in,” the Sulala volunteer says.
For now, he tends to his cats and all the wounded animals people bring to him, ranging from birds to donkeys and horses. He is also feeding stray animals in his area.
Life before Oct 7
Sulala, Arabic for ‘animal breeds’, was established and registered in 2006. “Saeed then opened a Facebook page in Arabic which gained followers over time and also volunteers,” Keuleers says.
Initially, Saeed and his volunteers used to feel stray animals and rescue the wounded ones. Finally, in 2019, he got a piece of land from the municipality and built a shelter there for dogs.
The shelter is about the size of a football field with a courtyard and shelter where the animals can sleep, the volunteer says. At first, Saeed took the rescued cats home but as the numbers grew, he rented two apartments — with each of his sons living in one.
Before October 7, the biggest of Saeed’s worries was managing to attend to the numerous calls he got in a day.
“He wasn’t able to take all of them and it really hurt him. A lot of people also approached him with pets they didn’t want to keep anymore, but he had to say sorry to them,” Keuleers tells Dawn.com.
She adds that apart from the dogs and cats, Saeed also used to take care of sheep, sea turtles, donkeys, birds, and horses.
“Before the war, he was just busy all day, he was out taking new cases … his job was organising the cases, following up on the numbers coming in … often 20 animals a day, which he felt wasn’t enough,” the volunteer recalls.
Saeed used to have two employees, but one of them was killed on Oct 7, Keuleers says.
Previously, Saeed also made headlines for using parts of toys and kids’ bicycles to build mobility devices for disabled cats and dogs.
Apart from Sulala, Four Paws — an international animal welfare organisation — has also worked for animals in the besieged strip. Over the last few years, the organisation has evacuated and closed down two zoos in Al-Bisan and Khan Younis.
However, they are currently unable to provide any help for animals on site due to the unpredictability of the situation in Gaza.
“We will closely monitor further developments and will evaluate together with the responsible people if and how we can help going forward,” Four Paws’ head of public relations told Dawn.com.
“We keep the affected people and animals in our thoughts during this difficult time,” she added.
‘War is horror for everyone’
Dawn.com was unable to talk to Saeed because of the mobile and internet outages in Gaza. But in an interview with Insider in 2021, the 51-year-old described how life is for animals in the strip.
“They are poor souls who have a very difficult life in Gaza,” Saeed had said. “I think they have more love and kindness in them than humans … I don’t want them to be in the street where they can get abused or hit by cars or shot. They get mistreated.”
“War is horror,” he had told Insider, “for both animals and humans.”
In another interview with The Guardian last year, Saeed hoped to be able to open a specialised hospital that serves all animals.
“I wish to have fully equipped shelters and to raise awareness among all people regarding animals,” he had said.
Saeed had told The Guardian that out of the hundreds of animals he had rescued over the years, his favourite was a cat named Minwer.
“At the end of long days, I arrive home and Minwer is waiting for me. If I cover myself with a blanket to stay warm, he will tap my hand to lift the blanket so he can join me. I dream that one day all animals will find a safe space like Minwer,” he had said.
Find details here if you want to donate to Sulala Animal Rescue.