Syrian vets save pets who lost their humans in earthquake

An animal sanctuary in Syria rescued a cat trapped inside its human’s shop for three days, a chicken stuck in the middle of a flooding river and a dog bleeding profusely from its leg. But it couldn’t save them all.

“Just like humans, we had to do triage,” said Mohamad Youssef, one of two veterinarians with Ernesto’s Sanctuary for Cats in Syria. “But we saved a lot, and we are still searching.”

As hopes for rescuing earthquake survivors in northwest Syria dwindled, roughly a dozen of Ernesto’s workers continued pulling out dogs, cats, goats and chickens from underneath the rubble. With few tools, they worked mostly by hand.

In a region devastated by tragedy upon tragedy, returning lost pets to owners can bring emotional comfort, and gathering up displaced farm animals ensures a steady source of food for a people largely cut off from international trade.

Ernesto’s founder, Alessandra Abidin, said her group was the only one in northwest Syria focused on finding animals. 

Without Ernesto’s, the animals left behind by their humans fleeing for their lives, or by those who were killed by collapsed buildings, would likely die.

The team has brought roughly 35 animals to the sanctuary in Idlib city and treated dozens more in the region, driving 20 to 30 miles to find animals on farms and affected by floods. The rescue operation will continue for about another week, Abidin said.

“Humans cannot exist without dogs, without cats, without goats, without chickens,” Youssef said in Arabic. “They are part of our families, like a mom or a dad. They give us food, they give us happiness, they give us comfort. We would not be without them.”

After a traumatic event such as an earthquake, Youssef added, pets provide a love that few humans can match, a psychological support that can be a lifeline following so much loss. Earlier this week, the team heard a meow underneath a pile of stones. The team rushed over and dug a cat out with their hands. They later found puppies, too, whose owners had been killed or had fled.