Sorry, what was the question?
As I nervously walked up to the the metal gates at the end of a very long driveway, I thought I must be in the wrong place. Hopelessly lost with no one to talk to but the occasional goat or donkey, I was about to return to the main road when I saw a very petite woman trailed by about 30 dogs, all wagging their tails in a display of happiness. I saw big German shepherds, and tiny poodles which came in every shade of brown, white, and sometimes even orange. Each one had been scooped up from the streets of Tangier.
“Welcome welcome!” the woman named Salima called out to me, her arms open ready to give me a hug. “We are so excited to have you here!” She said “we” by motioning towards all of the slobbery tongues hanging out of big smiling mouths. Within seconds, I was surrounded by several dogs with wheels for hind legs, jumping up excitedly and licking my face. I thought to myself that a woman who puts wheels on crippled dogs is someone I need to get to know.
As I walked through the sanctuary, my heart and mind travelled back a few days and I saw myself weeping over a tiny grave. It was my third day in Tangier, and while wandering through the medina I happened upon this run down pet store with cages lining the street in front of it. I was sure this place could never pass safety inspections, but even so I had to go in.
And there I saw a tiny white puff ball in an almost equally tiny, dirty cage. One look in his eyes and my heart felt a pull stronger than it had ever felt. It was that very moment that I knew I could not move on with my life until I helped him out of that terrible place. So I bought him, but I had to figure out a plan for somewhere to keep him, since he would not be allowed on campus. This proved to be quite difficult, but I was sure as hell not giving up. I would do whatever it took to help that miserable creature. So I named him Morocco-Rocco for short- and picked him up three days later.
Luckily, my Moroccan friend Badr was willing to keep him at his house with his other dog, Sami, so that Rocco would have a big brother. Badr is the definition of selfless. He understands the duty of care we all have toward animals and people alike. He walks through the streets of Tangier as if he always knows exactly where he’s going, even though he is often focused on where he’s been.
When we went to pick up Rocco, he was not the energetic, happy little puppy that was nibbling on my nose three days prior. He was lethargic, his eyes were glassed over and not looking at me. I knew something was terribly wrong, and I was right. The next day, he passed away due to parvovirus. I cried and cried until I had no more tears left. I tried to keep reminding myself that at least he was loved and warm in the end, he died in the arms of a selfless human being, feeling the sincerity in the beat of his heart. At least he got to know love, and so did we, if even for a short time.
Just as I was about to give up hope and move on, Badr told me about this amazing woman he knew named Salima Kadaoui who ran a sanctuary for the lonely, damaged, but still incredibly so loving strays of Tangier . It was essentially because of him that I met this woman who turned my life around with one phone call.
What she told me over the course of this call broke my heart.
“I am very sorry for your terrible loss” she began. “But don't go back into that pet store!” She warned. “I know it's hard to leave the animals in there but we cannot keep contributing to this epidemic.” She went on to tell me what I wish I had known before poor Rocco. “Those places are evil.” She revealed.
“They take the puppies away from their mothers when they are way too young, their immune systems don't even get to finish developing yet, and they have this parvovirus in their shops. They are aware that this virus stays in that environment for a year, and they continue to put more animals into it, to unavoidably end up dying a slow and painful death due to parvo.”
These words hit me very hard, but I knew I had to use my sadness and anger to fuel change.
“We are doing everything we can here to help this problem, please come down to my sanctuary, I've got 264 dogs all amazing animals, all in need of loving homes, all vaccinated and spayed so they are healthy. All I ask is that you will love my animals forever.” She told me.
Now as I knew this was a task that I was absolutely capable of doing, I decided I would make the trip to Salima’s sanctuary to find my soulmate among 264. We made plans to leave at 8 am the next morning. My life had taken a turn I hadn't thought possible just the day before.
Our destination was located about 20 minutes out of Tangier, and 20 minutes out of the comfort that came with it. I had been in Morocco for less than two weeks, and never out of Tangier without the company of other students. But when I heard the incredible passion in Salima’s voice that rang out urgently even through a cell phone receiver, I knew this place was unlike any that I'd ever been. I was thankful for my then-new Moroccan friend, because without Badr, I would have never made it there. We had to take a yellow cab, and while Mourad’s voice rang out in my head saying “la la la, only blue cabs!” I reluctantly entered the jalopy small, run-down taxi and moved all the way to the window, with Badr seated on the other side of me.
“You know, they won't leave until they get six people in this thing, two in the front seat and four in the back.” He said.
After driving for about 30 minutes, I watched as the city of Tangier got smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror.
I knew Kenza was my dog as soon as her eyes met with mine. She had his eyes, Rocco's eyes. She was very timid at first, but eventually became brave enough to come close enough to let me pet her. And before I knew it, this little puppy had stolen my heart and I didn't want it back. When Salima saw us together, she didn't need to ask if this was the one. She simply smiled and said, “so did you wanna take her home today?”
I could only nod because otherwise I would have burst into tears. I carried her all the way back down to the gates, hugging her tightly and listening to her fluttery little heartbeats. Salima drove us back to the city, and Kenzia’s eyes refused to look away from me. Not that mine were any better.
As Badr and I entered the house, we began to prepare for our first task as parents, puppy’s first bath! It wasn't long before crazy Kenza had wriggled out of my arms and began running around the house like a little monsoon, soaking everything in her path. We left that room without a dry spot on us, but we had never been happier. The emptiness that Rocco left in our hearts had vanished, and we have Salima, this indescribable woman so full of life and love, with more heart than anyone I have ever met, to thank for that.
Rocco was buried in the pet cemetery in Tangier, Badr made him a nice grave, and of course I placed rocks on his grave, so he would know we were there. Badr followed my foreign-to-him Jewish tradition without question out of the respect he had for me and my faith, the same respect I had shown him. We often talked about how the world would be a much nicer place if everyone treated each other the way we did. Comfort came to me as Badr spoke:
“Look there, ’Fido, 1781’, and ‘Fefe, 1892’.”
As I continued to look around the little graveyard, I felt at peace knowing he was not alone. I was finally able to leave with peace in my heart after these kind words from Badr:
“you know, I think that there is a world that we cannot see. I think that Fido, Fefe, Rocco, and all the other dogs in here are running around in this place having a wonderful time, but it looks different to them. There are flowers everywhere. We just can't see it.” And with that, my tears finally dried.
A month later, I returned to the sanctuary to interview Sally and learn as much as I could about her life and what led her here. "I haven't slept in 3 days alright, so let's get started!"
Salima Kadaoui, an extremely petite, sleep deprived woman sat down next to me amidst nearly 300 dogs all equally curious to see who I was. "Does smoke bother you?” She asked.
“I'm sorry, I'm a compulsive smoker and when you live with animals you kind of forget how you're supposed to act around people. They certainly don't give a hoot so sometimes I forget. Sorry, what was the question?" She managed to pull from her scattered thoughts.
I began to ask sally about the marvellous life she built in this place, one she shared with nearly 500 rescued animals. Each one had a name, and a heart wrenching story behind their soft eyes, much like people.
Except that when people go through experiences such as these animals have been through, most of them break. And this brokenness and bitterness shows in their eyes. But when you look in the eyes of these dogs, all that can be seen is pure love. I could have sat there, pointing at each and every precious life and listening to her tell me each of their stories in great detail for a week. And she knew them all.
For a moment, it got a bit hard to hear her over all of the playful barking. "ALRIGHT THATS ENOUGH!" She yelled, and amazingly enough, what followed was complete silence. Of course it didn't last long, but it was highly impressive nonetheless. I couldn't help but laugh outwardly when she uttered; "they’ve been at it all night too, the little monkeys! I love them to bits but I call them my little monkeys."
“Sorry, What was the question again?”
“I grew up in Tangier, and as long as I can remember we always had so many strays on the streets” she began as she told me stories of her childhood. “I always fetched dogs and cats and donkeys, any living creature. I used to take home so many that it got to the point where my parents said ‘we can’t have anymore!’ This made me chuckle as I looked around and realised that this special place was exactly her childhood, but on a much larger scale. Sally represents that you really can make your childhood dreams come true, and this was comforting to me. “My dream was to take all the strays home.” And that silly little childhood dream of hers, one which I shared as well - is exactly what she has spent her life accomplishing.
Salima Kadaoui went to university first in Grenada, and then to Cambridge where she studied nothing to do with animals, which intrigued me. Then for a while, her main focus switched to the beautiful little baby she had had. “My job was to be a mum” she said of this period in her life.
Then, when her daughter was 17, tragedy struck. Sally’s father got sick with Alzheimer’s. She had been out of her country for 20 years when she decided it was time to return to Tangier, look after her father, and do what she always wanted to do - take all the strays home. So she started her sanctuary, and worked hard to make her dream a reality. At this point in the interview, I saw her look around at all she had accomplished and smile with pride in herself. When asked if she ever wanted to do anything else in her life, she sternly replied “no, I always, always wanted only this. It started as ‘let’s take all the strays home,’ but then you realise you can’t take them all home, and you need to change the mentality of people.”
As she began to open up about the amazing work she has done with not only the strays in Tangier, but the people as well, I realised how much I truly looked up to Salima. From that point on, every time I would put all my energy and time into rescuing a poor little mangy dog I didn’t care when people made fun of me. I didn’t care about the judging looks I received. I just thought about Salima, and knew that I had to do the right thing, even if I was doing it alone.
“A huge part of my work is to go and educate people and teach them love and compassion, and show them the reward there is in doing good, and helping any living creature whether human or animal.”
This touched my heart because, finally, here was somebody sitting right in front of me who truly understood me. “Even a tree if you see it’s gasping for water, you’ve gotta water it.”
I then moved to the subject of one of Sally’s greatest feats, her TNVT program. The acronym stands for Treat, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Tag. This program is a huge step in the right direction towards humans and animals living together in peace.
“Yeah, we’ve done over 300 dogs.” She said as if it was a small accomplishment, while I couldn’t help my jaw from dropping. “300?! Wow!” I exclaimed as she went on, “with no funding, so that’s just me begging on Facebook and my vet is a saint because I owe him over 20,000 pounds and he still works for me everyday.”
In a time when I often felt disheartened by the way people acted towards animals, this was a moment of relief because I realised that there truly are good people in this world. “In many areas what we have done with TNVT is a great success, people love them. They send me lovely photographs of them cuddling the strays, it’s wonderful.”
She told me with a big smile on her face that she didn’t bother trying to hide anymore. When asked if she ever runs into any obstacles with this program, she went on to tell me “in other communities, you have people complaining and you have to explain to them. This is how I get through to them: you explain to them look. If you take the dogs away, other dogs will come. If we keep these TNVT dogs here, you’ll have no rabies.”
At this point in her interview, the phone rang as she efficiently set up a visit to the sanctuary and gave directions in 10 seconds flat.
“Sorry, what was the question again?”
“Oh right, how I get to people.” Sally went on as she switched her brain back to the current moment from the thousands of other things she has to worry about. “So if I take the dogs away, you’ll just have the same problem but with TNVT, by vaccinating you’ll never have rabies in the neighbourhood. Even if a rabid dog comes to the neighbourhood, those dogs are gonna chase him away and they won’t catch rabies because they’re vaccinated.”
At this point I could clearly see knowing the people of Tangier pretty well by now, why the program was such a huge success. But she had more to say.
“Second of all, because they’re all neutered they’re not gonna have this gathering of strays coming to the neighborhood looking for females, there won’t be those dog fights and all that barking inside because that stuff goes on. Uhhh… because they’re treated, they don’t have horrible parasites, and because of that tag they are identified, we know exactly when they were vaccinated, when they were treated and even the authorities will not kill them, because they know they’re not a danger to the public. So in the end, these dogs are actually helping you.”
“A very compelling case indeed!” I thought to myself before I remembered that I wasn’t one of the residents of Tangier Sally was trying to change the mind of. She presented her case so well, all my brain could do was go right along with it and that shows how effective her words are with people.
“Then I bring the part of humanity.” She continued and I knew what she was about to say would hit me straight in the heart. “Here I use the part of Islam, and I remind everyone that God created planet earth for all of us, humans and animals. You have the right to live here, they have the right to live here. And that’s how I get through to people.
“Do you ever run into any problems with this program? I asked, not seeing how there could be any flaws in this logic. “In most places, this is a huge success. Of course there are idiots that complain they’re barking at night, I just say oh you’re lucky they’re barking at night, they’re chasing away other dogs, rabid dogs you know?” I loved her quirky way of standing up to those idiots, as she called them, and I loved the way she always won.
“And you know some dogs that I had TNVT’d, I didn’t put them back because of their personalities they’re very shy and they’re gonna get hurt. But the ones that do well on the street, they should stay on the streets. Unless you find a loving home for them of course.”
As I looked around, I noticed that many of the dogs keeping a bit of distance, bore the yellow tag on their ear. “We even TNVT the puppies because if we’ve got people looking after them, we provide the food and we educate that person caring for them, and because they’re tagged and people know the tag means they’re treated neutered and vaccinated, they tend to adopt them!”
With that an involuntary “awwww” left my mouth. “So far, all of our tagged puppies have been adopted!” Hearing this, my sadness and worry for these strays lightened a great amount, and I felt so happy that Sally had been able to accomplish this.
At that point, I asked as my worry about the answer could be heard in my voice, “so if there’s a stray dog and it’s not tagged, do the authorities hurt it?” I almost couldn’t bear to say the words.
“Yes often the authorities will go out in the early morning and shoot dogs. They’ve stopped the poisoning which is great because it’s illegal, but they go and shoot strays yes.”
My heart sunk into my stomach and the horrifying images I had in my head made me realise all the more how vital the work Sally is doing really is to these animals. I needed to change to a happier subject, before we both began to feel sick.
So I decided then to ask about her attendance at the global animal welfare conference in Madrid I had learned of. “Yes, I was invited to go and change the situation of strays around the world. A political party came here for a visit this summer and invited me, and asked me to do a presentation about the work I do. You have other countries like Ukraine where they shoot dogs. Iran where they shoot dogs. Romania as well, so the point of my presentation was to give ideas to others.
Because you know you can’t just go to authorities and say don’t shoot, don’t kill. You can’t do that. You’ve gotta show that you care about the humans and the animals. What you can do, is go to these neighborhoods and do the work that we do and prove that it works.”
I felt so proud of Salima Kadaoui in this moment, that I felt more emotions than I had in a long time. “And you go to the next neighborhood and the next.” She continued. “Then you present your case to the authorities and say look what I’ve done, this is the reaction of the people, there are no other dogs coming to that neighborhood, these dogs are perfectly healthy, they’re actually helping the people and the people care about them and are looking after them. And that’s the message I was giving.” And what a powerful message it was.
“They’ve told me they’ve shot here and they’ve shot there and it makes me sick. But I try not to think about that, I’ve gotta think about what I’m capable of doing. And by doing what I’ve done and going to the authorities and presenting what I did, they’ve given me a written agreement that they will not kill my strays. And we’re supposed to get funding from the authorities to carry on doing this. We’ve achieved something huge.” She told me, although I was already fully convinced. “I’ve gotta bring Islam into this it’s the only way to get through to people.” Knowing how large a part faith plays in these people’s lives, this logic was sound. “People ask me why I do this, I say I’m a Muslim it’s my duty! So that’s what I tell people because you have to hit where you know it’s gonna make a difference.”
What she said next caused tears to well up in my eyes like at those splash parks when I was a kid where you’d wait for the bucket to get full of water, and dump all over everyone. It was great fun then, but now as I’m older, it felt different.
“Islam tells us, that we have the duty of care of everything happening around us. And we must look after humans, animals, plants, the lot. That’s a very important message that comes through Islam, for Christianity and for Judaism as well. For the Buddhists, for everything.”
I then felt something in my chest that I couldn’t quite define. “And it’s getting through to the whole world, people have heard about us in Indonesia, Africa, France, Spain, Italy so people are listening. Because what people love about this place is that you come here, and there’s a bunch of happy animals. So you know even the ones that are disabled or whatever, they’re still happy.”
And as I looked around at the sea of wagging tails, “indeed.” I whispered to myself. I ended the interview by asking, “if you could say one thing to the whole world to change their minds about animals, what would it be?”
With this, Salima closed her eyes, took a well deserved deep breath and said: “people that don’t love animals, don’t want to be loved. It’s as simple as that. They don’t know the meaning of unconditional love.”
As I thanked Salima for all she had done, she jokingly said “yeah between all the barking I hope you at least got some of it!”
Our laughs were fueled by the purest happiness humanly (or animal -ly) possible. Sally went to go save the world, and me, I set off to share her story. SFT and the woman who built it gave my life a new meaning, and I hope this small glimpse into her world will impact yours as well. I hope it will change you for the better. I hope that next time you see a struggling animal, you don't turn away and forget about it. But instead you think of Salima and all she stands for, and do the opposite. I promise you, you will not regret it.
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