As Mark Twain once observed, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Certainly, all of us have experienced that first day. But it seems that only a limited number are lucky enough to have the second. Helena Hesayne is one of those fortunate few.
Once a successful architect, Hesayne left her lucrative career for a more singularly profitable calling: serving as a shepherd and advocate for frightened, abandoned, mistreated dogs, cats, and other creatures. As vice president of Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA), Hesayne has become a caring sentinel for hundreds of animals who have managed to survive rejection, neglect, and unspeakable cruelty.
“BETA was actually founded by a group of women who met at the vet’s office and over garbage bins where we used to feed these animals,” recalls Hesayne. “We began our activities in 2004 and became a Lebanese registered charitable organization in 2006. With the support of my family, I was able to quit my career as an architect. The animals need me more!”
To date, BETA represents the first registered dog and cat shelter in a country that, according to Hesayne, hasn’t yet come to view animal welfare as a key concern.
“Unfortunately, animals are not a priority when you have so many other problems in this country,” she says. “The war in Syria, all the refugees, the garbage problem, two years now with no president. The situation is simply not helping these animals. Abuse and abandonment occur every day, every hour, and every second.”
Hesayne notes that most of BETA’s animals are stray dogs, although the organization has also rescued a range of other animals, including foxes, sea turtles, donkeys, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits — even primates, like abandoned or mistreated baboons and vervets.
“Our stray dogs are usually medium- to large-sized canines — not really the most appreciated in this country,” she explains. “So they stay here with us, since we’re a no-kill shelter. Most of our fosters accept cats, though there aren’t many fosters in Lebanon.”
Besides serving as a safe haven, BETA is focused on helping beleaguered animals in other ways. Between 2004 and 2015, Hesayne estimates that her organization has been able to assist nearly 5,000 animals. Ongoing efforts include regional education, direct-action initiatives, placement services, and combating the illegal wildlife trade.
When it comes to educational efforts, Hesayne observes that BETA stays in close, sustained contact with multiple schools and universities. “Their students come to the shelter to earn community service hours,” she says. “We also have Boy Scouts who help out as volunteers, especially during the summer.”
Direct-action initiatives include closing down a local pet shop this past November. Hesayne recalls the distressing intervention: animals maintained in abusive conditions, many dead on the scene. In all, BETA was able to rescue 15 dogs and four cats, who were taken into the shelter to await caring forever homes.
The organization also maintains ongoing communication with the minister of agriculture. These efforts recently helped to create a new legal precedent, allowing BETA to intervene and rescue a dog who had been living in a box for two years straight. “Laws in this country are still fairly primitive,” Hesayne maintains, “but we strive to address these issues at their root.”
That means visiting schools and summer camps in person, helping future generations appreciate the importance of animal welfare. “We tell these kids about the accountability that’s required to care for an animal and emphasize that pets should be considered a part of the family,” says Hesayne.
BETA also leverages local media outlets, actively working with television and radio stations to enlighten the public about topics such as puppy mills and dog fighting. In Lebanese culture, dogs are often the most challenging type of pet to rescue and assist, Hesayne notes. “They’re not as accepted as cats when roaming out on the streets,” she explains, “so there can be a lot of outright abuse, cruelty, even poisoning” before anyone is able to intervene.
On an encouraging note, BETA is finding itself increasingly recognized and quoted by media sources. When the organization is recognized, the animals are recognized as well. According to Hesayne, certain municipalities have even stopped poisoning and shooting their stray dogs. “They’re beginning to understand that it’s not a solution — because after a few days, more strays simply show up,” she says.
To that end, BETA has helped to introduce a targeted trap-neuter-release (TNR) program to the region. In 2009, the organization succeeded in neutering roughly 210 stray dogs, with financial assistance from the animal welfare-supporting Brigitte Bardot Foundation. It also takes an active, annual role during World Spay Day, helping disadvantaged citizens spay and neuter family pets at affordable prices.
Additionally, the BETA team leverages its extensive rescue, social media, and word-of-mouth networks to help find caring, adopting homes for its rescued pets. Many of these homes are in Lebanon, but families from the United States and Canada also express keen interest. In cases where a dog is rehomed on another continent like North America, Hesayne or one of her colleagues typically travels with the pet. In such instances, BETA works with a reputable regional rescue organization to secure a safe, smooth final transfer to the waiting adopter.
“We’re a group of four people putting in enormous effort to make this organization work — to help this crucial cause gain the recognition and respect it deserves,” asserts Hesayne. “Our board consists of wonderful people who continually strive to secure funds and assistance for BETA, which is no easy task in this country. The problem is extremely widespread. Currently, our shelter has exceeded its maximum capacity of 250 dogs — we’re currently providing care for more like 450. But every small step is a move forward.”
Hesayne notes that even after the animals make it to BETA’s shelter, they still need food, ongoing veterinary care, vaccinations, and parasite protection. The shelter itself needs periodic structural updates, critical roof repairs, and the like to provide enduring safety and security. This is why everyone involved with BETA’s mission remains dedicated to spreading the word and finding empathetic global supporters.
Interestingly, it was Mark Twain who also observed that “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” In the face of formidable obstacles that might discourage others, the founders of BETA continue marshaling the courage and tenacity to persevere in the name of animal welfare, one rescued, revitalized pet at a time.
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.