While much of the world is on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, about 50 cats are roaming around one rooftop in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
Big cats, little cats. Cats with one eye. Cats with three legs. In this one makeshift shelter, it’s both young and old, sick and strong — all together.
“I’ve been surrounded by animals from the moment I could open my eyes,” says Ahmed Tazi. He runs the shelter with his family, who own the adjacent apartment.
Sixteen years ago, Tazi and his sister Habiba founded a nonprofit called L’Association de Défense des Animaux et de la Nature — The Association for the Defense of Animals and Nature, in English — or ADAN. For those in Rabat wondering “who you gonna call” when you find a stray — the answer is the Tazi family.
Ahmed says he’s woken up by a phone call at around 7 a.m. most mornings. Someone has seen an injured dog on the side of the road. A box of abandoned kittens has been left at a neighbor’s doorstep. A family is thinking about adopting a new pet and wants some advice.
The Coronavirus crisis has sent these calls into overload. In recent months, the pound has sent ADAN hundreds more strays, which they try to manage in their already overrun shelters. Unproven rumors about pets transmitting Covid-19 to humans has also led to an uptick in families abandoning their pets. The rate of new adoptions, meanwhile, has plummeted in Rabat.
“The number of dogs and cats being brought to us has tripled since the start of the crisis,” Tazi says.
Even before the pandemic, it was still relatively uncommon in Morocco to keep household pets.
“There’s a misunderstanding in Morocco,” Tazi says. “People have this idea that dogs are ‘impure,’ but that’s just pure ignorance.”
ADAN has held workshops in local schools to teach kids about animal rights. The human-animal connection is just not part of the culture, says volunteer Boutaina Jaidi.
“I don’t think anyone here in Morocco is raised to love animals,” says Jaidi. “It’s just part of our culture, we don’t naturally go towards animals like that, that’s not how we are raised.”
Before the shutdown due to the coronavirus, Jaidi was one of dozens of volunteers who spent her Saturdays participating in a weekly beach walk with a handful of the shelter dogs along the Mediterranean.
The Moroccan government gave ADAN a vacant beachside property, which the association has turned into its dog shelter. Around 5 percent to 10 percent of the 400 dogs ADAN has rescued will be adopted. The rest will spend their entire lives here. Ahmed Tazi says the costs add up.
“The debt just keeps rising,” he says. “Even our family inheritance is pretty much depleted.”
The Tazis’ inheritance came from their grandfather, Abdelhadi Tazi, a well-known Moroccan historian and former advisor to the king. ADAN has received more than $5,000 in international donations through a Go Fund Me page, and some additional support from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.
The Tazis are trying to convince the Moroccan government to share more of the responsibility, but a promised new facility for the dogs has yet to materialize. Ahmed Tazi says, for now, the majority of the work comes from volunteers and a small group of activists.
Atika Cherradi is in her 60s, and she’s a recognizable face on the streets of Rabat. Several times a day, she hops on her motorbike carrying 50 lbs. of meat scraps bought from local butchers. Cherradi’s food distribution work is considered “essential” by the government during the pandemic.
“You see what happens the second [the animals] hear my motorbike,” she says revving up her engine. Seemingly out of nowhere, a flurry of stray dogs make their approach.
By the end of her shift, Cherradi will have traveled 36 km. (22 mi.) distributing food to local strays.
This responsibility hasn’t been easy on her. Cherradi’s husband gave her an ultimatum. Him or the strays. She chose the strays. And while that’s an extreme example of devotion, Ahmed Tazi says he hopes the work ADAN volunteers do inspires others.
“We want the work we’re doing to have a snowball effect across every Moroccan city,” Tazi says.
Until cultural attitudes change, that’s likely to be a long process. For now, the strays of Rabat will have to roam the streets another day, hoping for the hum of that motorbike to signal dinnertime, once again.