Prizes and awards are the best way to honour winners. Highlighting their work and achievements is just as important, especially if these accomplishments are the fruit of years of hard work. Dr Salah Wahib Fahmi of the Brooke Hospital in Cairo recently won the award for the Most Inspirational Vet of the UK-based Brooke Hospitals for Animals, in recognition of his dedication, commitment and support for the Brooke to alleviate the suffering of horses, donkeys and mules.
Watani met Dr Fahmi to congratulate him on his award and learn about him and his work.
Why were you given an award from the United Kingdom?
Last October, HRH The Duchess of Cornwall presented me with the award at St James’s Palace for 30 years of caring for working animals at the Brooke Hospital in Cairo. My love and care for the animals made me not just focus on their treatment but furthermore on ways to prevent animal disease.
How did you join the hospital?
I studied veterinary science because I am very keen on animals. After I graduated I noticed the Brooke horse carts in the streets; I contacted the hospital, where I was interviewed and, following six months’ training, hired. The then Brooke’s chief vet, Dr Murad Ragheb, was fully convinced of my devotion to animals.
When I first joined the Brooke my salary was a modest EGP25 before taxation, which was very low. My choice of working for a veterinary hospital was definitely not based on money.
You mentioned that the hospital is British, can you explain?
After World War I, Dorothy Brooke noticed the poor state of the some 20,000 well-bred cavalry horses that the British government left in Egypt once the war came to an end. They were mistreated and used as animals of labour. Mrs Brooke, helped by many of her friends in British institutions, bought up these wretched animals. She “put to sleep” those who were too ill or weak to be treated, and moved the rest by ship to England for treatment on private farms for the remainder of their lives. Then the hospital in Cairo was founded.
Even though this was in the 1930s, a time when many foreigners were living and working in Egypt, it goes to Mrs Brooke’s credit that she was the only one who noticed the state of the horses, not only that but also she tried to remedy their pitiful situation.
After Mrs Brooke, how did the hospital carry on with its mission?
Mrs Brooke changed the lives of the animals and unburdened them of their misery. But after that, it was our responsibility to alter the mentality of animal owners and convince them of the essentiality of caring for their animals and providing them with enough food and water and reasonable working hours. We also had to talk them into bringing their animals to receive care free of charge at the British hospital.
In 1976 we acquired out first X-ray, which made it an easier job to convince an owner that a work animal had a broken bone or damaged organ and he should give up his animal. The hard part was to convince the owner that the disability of his animal was irreparable as long as it went on using the damaged part.
In 1982 a fully equipped operation room was established to perform different kinds of operations under complete anaesthesia. Later a clinical lab was set up.
In 1985 we got a mobile clinic that we were able to drive with our private driving licences. The mobile clinic was a godsend, because it enabled us to reach the garbage collectors’ barns in Muqattam, Maadi and Helwan.
In 1990 we started work with the brick factories where donkeys were employed to move materials back and forth. We contacted the factory owners and convinced them to preserve their animal wealth by offering their work animals enough food and water as well as building them shelters. The Brooke also encouraged factory owners to use mules rather than donkeys, since mules are stronger, and to make the animals work during the afternoon rather than in the morning in summer. We also explained how important it was to immunise the animals every three months and stressed the essentiality of hygiene.
Are veterinary doctors in any danger?
There are many hazards, among which are contagious diseases such as coughs, tetanus and several others. Workers in this field should be careful while dealing with the animals. A few years ago I was treating a horse that had pneumonia and I was giving it daily injections. After it was cured and during examination, the horse attacked me and bit my shoulder and broke my collarbone.
How do animal owners reach you?
The hospital owns a large and a small ambulance to move working animals in case the owner of the animal calls the hospital and asks for help, This is in cases when the animal is not in a state to reach the hospital under its own steam. We also have a crane to lift a sick animal and put it in the ambulance.
Have you had any interesting incidents while treating a sick animal?
Some time ago I treated a donkey and after I discharged it from hospital I sent it back to its owner. Three weeks later the donkey fled from its owner and headed back to the hospital.
Another incident I recall was when a horse’s tongue was cut because of a piece of glass that was in its food. The man glued back the torn part to save the animal on the spot! Luckily he got the poor animal to the Brooke where we were able to treat it.
Did you ever visit the UK?
I went to the UK several times and visited several vet centres. During one of my visits I spent two months and trained to perform various interventions. I visited the royal stables at a time when equine flu had surfaced. A month after my return to Egypt, horse flu appeared in Egypt through racehorses that were admitted to Egypt without complete veterinary checkups. The Brooke was the first to inform the Veterinary Public Authority of the appearance of the disease.
Have you carried out any research on work animals?
I did some research in Ethiopia on the importance of making animal harnesses with materials from the surrounding natural environment without over-spending on them, because the animal owners need to be able to afford them. I also presented the London Brooke administration with some research on the state of the animals in Ethiopia as well as the need for veterinary care. The hospital in Egypt granted me the use of its scientific library with its rich supply of books as well as modern medical and vet papers and newsletters. I enjoyed the use of the library very much.
Since your retirement, what do you think about the new generation working at the Brooke?
Most of the new generation worked with me before I retired. They are all active and full of vitality and are all very keen on the animals. Dr Nasser Hosni, a man with admirable ethics, leads the wonderful team.
How do you assess today’s veterinary field in Egypt?
We now have very good, qualified calibres in the field but what we really lack is funds, maintenance of equipment and a serious attitude towards work.
Good veterinary care in general is the first line of protection for public health; it helps prevent the spread of any disease or epidemic, especially those that can strike both humans and animals. Because of this, domestic animals should always be under veterinary supervision. A very common problem nowadays is that the rabies vaccine which until recently cost EGP2 has now reached EGP30, which often dissuades dog owners from vaccinating their dogs. Unfortunately, the bird flu virus has become pandemic in Egypt whereas other countries such as Israel and Lebanon who used the effective relevant vaccine were able to eradicate the virus.
Some people believe that treating humans is more important than treating a sick animal, which, according to them, is just a luxury. I would like to tell these people that it is true that treating a horse can cost four times as much as treating a human, but let me remind them that their livelihood depends on the work of the horse.
I believe that when we treat a sick horse at the Brooke, it is as if we are subsidising this family to the tune of EGP200, especially in that the horse’s owner does not pay anything towards the treatment of his animal.
What about racehorses?
The Brooke only treats working animals. Race and show horses have their private vets, since their owners can afford the cost of treatment.
Have you publicised the Brooke outside Egypt?
The Brooke was able to collect donations through our London office, which enabled them to open new branches in India, Pakistan, Jordan, and finally in Ethiopia. This was thanks to the thousands of foreigners who visited our branches all over Egypt in Cairo, the Delta, Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh, Luxor, Edfu and Aswan, and could see the kind of effort we did.
British, American and French TV have made and broadcast programmes on the Brooke. Local and foreign papers have also written about us.
What about your family life and your life after retirement?
I am married and have two daughters and grandchildren who all love animals. I always had conflicts with my family because of working during feasts and vacations. Now, since I retired, I lead a quieter life and am able to sleep more calmly. During my work days visions of the animals used to preoccupy me at night and I used to wake up from my sleep to call the hospital and inquire about the animals, especially after they had undergone surgery. I was also very often on call.
I always dissuaded my daughters and grandchildren from rearing domestic animals, since they get attached to them and then grieve for them after they lose them, which was what happened when my daughter lost her cat. But I always encourage them to visit the zoo and be kind to all animals.
What did you learn from your professional life in the Brooke?
I learnt to give more than to take. I learnt to care for the animals’ health and well being without caring for the return.