Halloween chills arrive early in Dahab, a former fishing village that kisses the Red Sea on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The shore of this diver’s paradise is guarded by ‘blue hole,’ a deceptively deep underwater tunnel known as the Diver’s Cemetery as nitrogen narcosis sends victims into a semi-conscious fall to the ocean floor. Ghost town silence has swallowed this once booming tourist destination after a summer of politically motivated violence penetrated the international news media with scenes of body-filled morgues. But some are now saying that the most dangerous force in Dahab comes not from the sea or car bombs in nearby cities, but from a blood-thirsty pack of rescue dogs who have developed a taste for human bones.
It all began 11 years ago, when English-born Janet Johnson sailed to Egypt as a crew member on a private boat. A cargo ship began to overtake the vessel and a mere three seconds stood between life and death for everyone on board. Janet took this as a sign. She felt that her life had been spared for a higher purpose and she set off to find it, but instead, it found her.
Once in Egypt, a pair of street dogs began following Janet, and soon it grew to a dozen and then two dozen.
Before long, Janet found herself sleeping on a rug in the desert, under a blanket of stars with 200 dreaming dogs kicking and snoring beside her. You see, the mayor had planned a mass poisoning campaign to kill the dogs and it was agreed that they would only be spared if Janet took custody of them and assumed full financial responsibility for their care. So Janet settled the packs in a place called Moon Valley, an area created by a dried up river bed (known as a wadi) where the dogs could roam freely in relative safety in a natural environment. The land is surrounded on three sides by mountains that afford shade and natural caves, but due to outsiders’ attempts to harm the dogs, the wadi is now fenced along the sea, a sad barrier that leaves only memories of a time when the dogs bobbed in the waves all day, playing and swimming.
“I love seeing dogs enjoying the sea,” Janet says with teary-eyed recollection of gentler times. “In the past in the summer the street-dogs all along the coast of Dahab would spend time each day in the sea. There were a lot of dogs in those days so a lot paddling, swimming and lying in the sea to cool off. The lighthouse used to be like a giant paddling pool with tourists and local kids, divers, snorkelers, dogs and horses all splashing around together.”
Now, the dogs now remain in the caves on hot days and cool themselves in large tubs of water. Tensions run high and some locals who hold traditional views of dogs as vermin would like to see them vanish.
Since the revolution of 2011, things have gone from bad to worse. Janet exhausted all of her personal savings in an attempt to stockpile kibble for the dogs and had no choice but to take on colossal debt. The dogs who had long survived on hotel food waste suddenly go without because there are very few hotel guests now. No guests means no food.
Janet has been in an all out panic as dog kibble is considered a luxury here and taxed accordingly and shipments are sporadic. She can’t rely on a regular supply line each week and has to pay escalating costs to secure the food. With curfews on the roads, supplies are sometimes stopped for days. So recently when an unexpected bounty arrived from one of the still-functioning hotels who sent over bones and meat scraps, it inadvertently fueled the fires of superstition in some who have long regarded the dogs as predators.
”It sounds like we will be the next meal for those wild dogs when they get hungry,” said Hossom, a Dahab resident living in proximity to the refuge who began harassing Janet’s small Facebook page. “Do you plan to let them eat the people in Dahab? It looks like you mean to make them wild. Please give up what you do or go do it in your country.”
But Janet can’t leave. If she were to go, the dogs — some very friendly and others truly wild — would perish. And though she has successfully adopted some 300 dogs to overseas residents and spayed/neutered another 700 on the streets, the job is far from done.
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“Janet is tied to the wadi as only she understands how the family groups work,” volunteer Denise Linden explains. “She knows the position of each dog in each family group and understands inter-group dynamics. There is neither electricity nor piped water at the wadi. Water has to be delivered daily by truck and then has to be distributed to drinking points, a job that takes as long as three hours, twice a day, even under the burning summer sun.”
With the return to the once grand days of tourism feeling light-years away, Janet’s only hope now is through the donations of dog lovers internationally. The cost of caring for the dogs is roughly $250 a week, an incredibly modest amount by most standards.