Lebanon's homeless dogs
04:15 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has cared for more than 1,500 cats and dogs

Animal rights not a popular cause in Lebanon, which has few animal-protection laws

Many animals taken in by the shelter have suffered horrific abuse

Beirut, Lebanon CNN  — 

Helena Hesayne used to be an architect, but she gave up her successful career for her passion: looking after mistreated animals.

It is not a popular cause in her native Lebanon, a country still healing from years of civil war. Here, unemployment, poverty and political stability are more pressing concerns for most people.

Hesayne, 47, is a vice president of a shelter on the outskirts of Beirut for 250 animals that have survived abandonment and cruelty.

Among the animals she cares for are Burni, a dog who survived being doused in gasoline and set alight, Savana, who was dumped from a car and then hit by another car, and Corra, a Labrador who was shot in the face.

Her shelter once even took in a lion cub, which had been living on bread and dirty water in an abandoned building.

Hesayne cries as she explains why these animals had to come before her career, but says she has no regrets.

“I left my career for that,” she said. “I care because that’s the only thing I care about. There is no more nature in Lebanon. It’s all about money. And animals are … they give me everything.”

Her organization, Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or BETA, has looked after more than 1,500 dogs, cats and other animals since it opened in 2004.

“It started with passionate women who were feeding cats and dogs on the streets, and they met around a garbage bin and they decided to join forces and to help,” said Hesayne.

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Now it risks losing its temporary shelter in a smart district overlooking Beirut because of complaints from neighbors.

“We have villas behind us and they are suing us. They want us out,” said Hesayne. “Now we have to find a land. The problem is nobody wants to have dogs around them.”

Hesayne and her colleague Sevine Zahran have lobbied the Lebanese government to increase its animal-protection laws. Lebanon is one of a few countries not signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making it an easy transit point for wildlife smugglers, and it has few domestic animal-protection laws.

Zahran, a social-affairs volunteer at BETA, said she has met government officials a few times but found they had different priorities.

She agrees that there are many other priorities in Lebanon, but believes animal rights and human rights go hand in hand.

“Humans are a priority and animals are also a priority,” she said. “We cannot forget about something if there’s something else going on in the world.

She added: “Studies show that animal abuse is very, very extremely related to human abuse.”

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Zahran and BETA would like to see more education about animal abuse.

“A lot of things are not ethical in treating the animals in Lebanon – we see all kinds of abuse,” she said. “What we witness on an everyday basis is very hard to share. I try to educate and raise awareness among the people.”

BETA has begun a pioneering program with Oumnia, a charity for sick and disabled children, to introduce dogs to young patients.

Dogs from BETA are taken into Oumnia’s center in an attempt to help boost the children’s self confidence and independence.

Marie-Gabrielle Phares, vice-president of Oumnia, said: “We had some children who didn’t speak at all and with the dogs they really started to manage and to speak … and to speak to others and to play. It was fantastic really. I think dogs therapy is a very good thing for children.”