A visit with the President

By Gregory Castle

Best Friends CEO Gregory Castle is in Africa following up on a project that Best Friends started two years ago to provide an alternative to the poisoning of street dogs in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. He will then attend a conference in Kenya concerning the future of animal welfare in Africa.

Why Africa? Since 2003, Best Friends has sponsored conferences and pilot projects in Asia, The Middle East and Africa in order to help sow the seeds of no-kill in developing countries before old line catch and kill sheltering practices are adopted from the west. These very small investments have reaped big rewards for animals around the globe.

Two years ago Best Friends worked with the Amsale Gessessee Memorial Foundation (now International Fund for Africa) and Humane Society International (the Coalition) creating a pilot program to address the problem of street dogs in Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia.

In early 2009 a party of experienced Indian professionals joined together with Best Friends experts to train Ethiopian veterinarians, techs and dog-catchers in ABC (Animal Birth Control). Best Friends CEO Gregory Castle, while visiting a conference on animal welfare in Nairobi, took a side trip to Addis Ababa to check on the program. He sent this report.

A visit with the President

Dr. Anteneh Roba is a consummate strategist and politician, with a compelling appreciation of whom you need to get on your side to get results, and a familiarity with Ethiopian culture having achieved a lot in that country (even though he now practices medicine in Houston, TX).

Anteneh also is driven by a passion for animals and desire to solve some major animal welfare problems in his native country.  He is deeply concerned about the plight of working horses and burros in Ethiopia but his abiding focus now, when he is not helping the deprived children there, another of his causes, is the dogs.  He told me of Susie Q, a cute shepherd mix picked up on the streets of Addis Ababa who he had fallen in love with and taken to Houston to be part of his five-dog menagerie.

Anteneh also has significant connections in Ethiopia.  A call to one of them had resulted in a meeting for us with the President of the country.  Anteneh figured it wouldn’t hurt to go right to the top and lay the groundwork for support for the street dog program there.

I agreed, it wouldn’t hurt.

We pulled up to the Presidential Palace in the heart of Addis at 4:15pm.  Uniformed and armed guards took our cell phones and cameras, and frisked us with beeping wands detecting the smallest piece of metal concealed in seemingly random parts of our clothing.  We walked on through the beautiful wooded approach to the still magnificent yet now mildly crumbling edifice that had once housed the Lion of Judah, Emperor Haile Selassie.  Think what you will of empires and emperors it was impossible to avoid the sense of walking on hallowed ground.

Entering through the gold-leafed, twenty foot high main door, we passed along magnificently carpeted hallways, catching a glimpse into a state ballroom that couldn’t have been smaller than a quarter acre, a lot more gold leaf, and finally arrived at an elegant ante-room to the President’s office. Anteneh had truly brought us to ‘the top’.  All for the dogs.

President Girma, an 86-year-old mountain of a man with enormous dignity, sat behind his massive hardwood desk, and smiled a welcome as we settled down to talk.  Anteneh introduced me and explained that I was here to help his country, his people, and the dogs on his streets.  We paused for a round of the exquisite and ubiquitous Ethiopian coffee.

I spoke of the rabies factor, that 1600 people are bitten by rabid dogs here each year, that though many people love the dogs and want no harm to come from them, the current policy of poisoning is neither humane nor effective at controlling population.  I spoke of the initial success of the pilot program we had set up, and the city manager’s support for extending the program.

I told the President that though Best Friends is a large animal welfare organization we do not have the resources to do very much work internationally, but we do want to see the lot of domestic animals improve all over the world.  I said that we had chosen to help in Ethiopia, because of the importance of the country as home of the African Union, and that success here could spread to other countries, helping animals and people throughout the continent.  I told him I wanted to do more for the dogs.

President Girma thanked us sincerely, asked a few questions, and then with charm and gentle humor went on to talk about some relatives of Anteneh’s he had known years ago, of his interest in the animals, and his deep concerns also for the toll that so many of his country’s practices had taken on the environment.  It became a relaxed conversation between friends in which we felt we were sharing sensitivities.

By the conclusion of our talk the President had said he would give the ABC program his support.  It was everything we had come for.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society