Morocco has 3 million stray dogs. Meet the people trying to help them.

Dog lovers proud of their country's unique breed want to make their lives better—and prevent the spread of rabies.

By erika hobart
Published 9 Nov 2021, 13:03 GMT
A pack of Beldis gather in the coastal city of Agadir, south of Tangier. Beldi, which ...
A pack of Beldis gather in the coastal city of Agadir, south of Tangier. Beldi, which means “from the countryside” in Darija, the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco, is a catch-all term used to describe mixed-breed dogs native to the country.
Photograph by Erika Hobart

It’s still dark when Salima Kadaoui begins her day. In these predawn hours, when the oppressive Moroccan heat is held at bay by a thin blanket of haze and most of the city is still asleep, free-ranging dogs called Beldis own the streets.

On this August morning, Kadaoui has been driving for only a few minutes when she spots one: a medium-size brown dog with a black muzzle and white paws. Beldi—which means “from the countryside” in Darija, the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco—is a catch-all term used to describe mixed-breed dogs native to the country.

Kadaoui pulls her van over to the side of the road and climbs out with a bag of dog food and a slip leash. Cautiously wagging its tail, the dog allows her to crouch down and stroke its head. It then accepts some food. (Learn how stray dogs can understand human gestures.)

Five more dogs emerge a short distance away and eagerly trot toward Kadaoui, basking in the attention and devouring her kibble. Kadaoui gets the slip leash around one of the dog’s necks and then picks her up—an impressive feat given that the two are almost the same size. She settles the dog in the back of the van and then returns for two more. The first male dog she saw, with the white paws, distances himself from the action, but continues to wag his tail and quietly observe her.

“We can’t take more than three this morning,” says Kadaoui, founder of SFT Animal Sanctuary, a nonprofit that rescues and cares for Tangier’s Beldis. The three dogs—which all prove to be pregnant, an all-too-common discovery—will be spayed and vaccinated against rabies. The veterinarian will also abort the dogs’ foetuses as part of an effort to control the population. Then, SFT staff will return the dogs to the streets, a philosophy called trap, neuter, and release (TNR).

At least 30,000 Beldis roam the streets of Tangier alone, with an estimated three million in Morocco. Many of them live in dire conditions, scavenging food scraps from the garbage and suffering from injuries and illnesses, including mange, and, more rarely, rabies. An estimated 80 people die from the disease in Morocco each year, and fear of rabies is the main reason Moroccans dislike Beldis, Kadaoui says. Data showing how often Beldis bite people are sparse and often unreliable, but there is a confirmed case of an Austrian tourist who was bitten by a rabid Beldi in the coastal city of Agadir who later died.

In 2017, Kadaoui and colleagues launched Project Hayat—which means “life” in Arabic—with the goal of making Tangier the first rabies-free city in Africa, in large part by vaccinating and sterilising 30,000 dogs by 2025. So far, they’ve vaccinated and released more than 2,500 animals, with plans to increase that rate with financial support from Morocco’s Ministry of the Interior, which supports TNR.

Some residents, such as Agadir-based journalist Mohamed Reda Taoujni, are adamantly opposed to TNR programs for Beldis. He says that since rescue organisations don’t have the resources to take care of—and annually vaccinate—strays for the duration of their lives, the humane approach is to euthanise them.

Salima Kadaoui, founder of SFT Animal Sanctuary, carries one of the pregnant female dogs to her van in August 2021.

“There are hundreds of dogs out there,” he says. “They’re vaccinated and we still have problems. This isn’t the solution. This isn’t good for our cities.”  

In Tangier, canines that can’t be released, such as sick animals, go to SFT’s two-acre sanctuary, currently home to more than 470 dogs. Since 2017, SFT has also adopted out an estimated 60 dogs to families in Europe and the U.K. (Adoptions to the U.S. ended in July, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended the importing of dogs from countries considered high-risk for rabies.)

Kadaoui’s focus is on the bigger picture.

“Adoptions are wonderful—don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But we've got 30,000 strays. The solution is not adoption. The solution is for humans to learn to live in harmony with the dogs and to look out for them.” (Read how adopting street dogs has become popular in India.)

To that end, she hopes Tangier will become a model community for co-existing with dogs, a place where citizens report seeing a sick dog or put out a bowl of water on a hot day.

The debate over Beldis

Kadaoui takes the three female Beldis from her morning’s run to the California Veterinary Clinic, where veterinarian Lahrech Mohamed Chakib is waiting.

With a calm demeanor that belies his lack of sleep, he jokingly refers to himself and Kadaoui as “crazy people” for their round-the-clock commitment to these animals. When he carries the three dogs from the van to his clinic, he cradles them, as if they are his own children.

In addition to being vaccinated and sterilised, every Beldi that comes through the clinic is given a permanent yellow ear tag with an identification number. Healthy, even-tempered dogs are returned to where they were first found; their tags notify both the authorities and the public that they aren’t a danger to the community. (Read about stray dogs living in a sanctuary in Costa Rica.)

Yet that’s not always enough to keep the animals safe. In cities across the country, authorities have shot and poisoned Beldis in an attempt to reduce the stray population. The Ministry of the Interior announced in 2019 that it would stop culling Beldis, and instead focus on sterilising and vaccinating strays. The ministry did not respond to National Geographic’s requests for comment about Beldis and the TNR program. 

But social media videos since then have shown that dogs continue to be rounded up and shot by both authorities and the public. Some dogs are beaten to death.

More than 99 percent of Morocco’s population is Muslim, and Kadaoui says many of them believe dogs are impure. But Kadaoui, who describes herself as a Moroccan Muslim, dismisses the idea as “absolute rubbish.”

“The Quran doesn’t say anything negative about dogs,” she says. “No living being that God created is impure.”

Most people don’t want Beldis to suffer, including Taoujni, the journalist, who owns two dogs himself. But Taoujini, who posts graphic photos of injuries he says were caused by Beldis on his Facebook page, says the dogs are often dangerous. He notes that people in cities across Morocco have begun carrying small rocks to throw in case they need to protect themselves, their children, or their pets.

Driss Semlali, who runs Malabata Guest House in Tangier, says there needs to be a more balanced approach to managing Beldis, for instance by moving them to a sanctuary outside the city. He says the street dogs prevent his guests from feeling as if they can safely go on walks, and that their incessant barking keeps people awake at night.

Yet removing—let alone euthanising—dogs will likely make the situation worse, says Terrence Scott, technical lead at the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, a U.S.-based nonprofit working to end human and animal deaths from rabies worldwide.

Scott says that if vaccinated dogs are removed from an area, new dogs—potentially rabid ones—will simply take over the territory. That’s why TNR of vaccinated animals is proven to reduce the spread of the disease, he says.

“Informally, a vaccinated dog can be considered a soldier in the fight against rabies,” he says. “If a rabid animal bites a vaccinated animal, it’s likely that the transmission of rabies will end there. So really, it protects the rest of the community from rabies.”

Changing perceptions

Although they’ve faced plenty of challenges, both Kadaoui and Chakib say they’ve made significant inroads in reducing rabies transmission in Tangier, both by vaccinating animals and educating citizens. They regularly visit schools to teach children strategies for coexisting with street dogs, such as not approaching or provoking the animals. 

“One of the biggest issues is that Moroccans are taught to fear dogs, and that dogs think they are in danger when they sense fear,” she says. For instance, a dog barking and running toward someone may seem aggressive, when really it’s merely curious, she says.

Many of Tangier’s residents have become increasingly protective of the Beldis. A video went viral last year of a member of the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie, part of Morocco's armed forces, stopping traffic in the city to rescue a stray puppy. (Read how people in India are feeding stray dogs during the pandemic.)

“When I first started doing this, people thought I was crazy,” Kadaoui says. “Now they say good job and well done and thank you. If we manage to get the entire community with us, the battle is won.”

Beyond Tangier

Tangier isn’t the only city that’s improving life for Beldis. Organisations such as Beldi Refuge Morocco in Chefchouen and Sunshine Animal Refuge (SARA) in Agadir are also working to trap, neuter, and release dogs in their respective cities, as well as find homes for them abroad.

SARA founder Michele Augsburger has sent hundreds of Beldis to her home country of Switzerland, as well as Germany and Canada. There’s even a Facebook group in Quebec dedicated to Beldis that showcases their adventures abroad since being rescued. It’s full of pictures of Beldis hiking in forests and snuggling with cats on couches.

“I get so many compliments from people who've adopted them and are just so proud of their Beldis,” Augsburger says. “They’re amazing. They have the biggest hearts. They are truly fantastic dogs.”

Chakib and Kadaoui echo that sentiment, adding that from a medical perspective, adopted Beldis tend to be more robust than purebred dogs and can live up to 17 years.

“If you want a dog that will very likely live for many, many years with no health issues, then get a Beldi,” Kadaoui says.

“Most rewarding job”

It’s the hottest part of the day when Kadaoui walks through her front door in Malabata, a residential neighbourhood in Tangier. Fifteen Beldis erupt in excitement, barking, jumping on tables, and spinning in circles, tails wagging furiously.

Some are temporary residents recovering from various illnesses and surgeries, while others are permanent house members. A handful are Beldis that have gone through the TNR program and live on the streets, but still occasionally drop by for a visit. The house has the energy of a playground full of children, and it’s fitting, given that Kadaoui refers to them as her babies. (Read how dogs are even more like us than we thought.)

“You have to be on duty all the time,” she says. “When the dogs sleep, you sleep. When the dogs wake up, you wake up. It’s not easy.

“But the love and joy that they give is priceless. It’s the most rewarding job in the world.”

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