Bethlehem’s Patron Saint of Puppies

diana babish with puppy

Diana Babish with a puppy she has rescued from the streets of Bethlehem | Photo: Catholic News Agency

If you’ve traveled to India, Mexico, Amman –– you see that dogs don’t have it so good. They are kicked, wounded, abused, and in some places poisoned or shot on sight––  nursling puppies killed in front of their mothers and then left to rot in a garbage dumpster. Maybe you have heard about litters of puppies and kittens tossed out of the windows of speeding cars? Or puppies kicked around like soccer balls. This is what happens in holy cities like Bethlehem, says Diana George Babish, a devout Catholic who cries about the state of animal rights in her home city, run by the Palestinian Authority. 

Diana has taken it upon herself to save every furry or feathery life she can. And it’s a a challenge when kids there prod donkeys with plastic chairs until their intestines fall out of their anus.  That’s what happened the first week of February, with the donkey recovering nicely after an operation in Israel, Babish reports.

With no stretch of the imagination Diana is the Patron Saint of puppies, dogs, kittens, lame donkeys and even chickens. She has stood up for animals who can’t speak for themselves.

bethlehem donkey diana babish

A donkey on IV, rescued from a secret operation outside of Bethlehem

Her organization Animal and Environment Association Bethlehem Palestine finds homes for about 150 puppies every year, and 70 dogs in Israel by transporting them across the green line in a taxi, but save the lives of thousands more, offering them life-saving treatments before they are put back onto the streets or adopted into homes in the West Bank. The horrific details of abused donkeys, puppies, and cats can be seen on her Facebook page here

I met Diana through a few of a friend of a friend when I was looking for puppies this past summer. Within an hour she was sending me photos on Whatsapp of scrappy but plump, well-fed puppies. They were all born in backyards of people in Bethlehem or Ramallah, but they were people concerned enough to alert Diana that the animals were there.

We picked two from a pile scrambling around in a pile of garbage in someone’s backyard. A day later Diana arranged the difficult process of sending a taxi to a city she wasn’t at in the West Bank, working as a matchmaker for puppies and people that want them in Israel.

She would find a taxi to pick up the puppies who would cross the Green Line with the driver to bring them to Israel where people are eager to adopt puppies –– and mature dogs. Diana’s dogs come from the West Bank cities and villages around Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin and Jericho. In some harder cases she can send them to Israeli vets or hospitals for treatment in Israel. But it’s expensive. 

She’s currently raising money to build a shelter on land she has already secured outside of Bethlehem.

The day my puppies arrived, Zuckerberg and Shemesh (sun in Hebrew), there was a bit of a mix up and hoping to help bring a wounded dog in our ride to a pet hospital in Israel, the dog died not reaching the veterinarian in time.

Diana was bawling on the phone, and I thought to myself –– if we all could feel this way about the lives of dogs we could surely build an entirely peaceful Middle East. And in the framework of “peace” we could say that Diana’s initiative is creating peace through puppies.

My vet in Israel says that I am lucky to have received puppies from Ramallah who are generally in much, much better condition than the ones rescued from Bethlehem. 

Diana is not alone in her rescue mission. She is growing a team of volunteers and spotters around her, locals in the West Bank, neighboring Israelis and internationals who all want to get animals off of the streets.

Since our puppies arrived from Ramallah, it turns out that I have several friends who also have Palestinian dogs. The Covid lockdown has definitely increased the interest for puppies in Israel. Having pets around surely increases the love in any home. Mine are below. 

Palestinian puppy, Israeli girl

My Palestinian puppy, Zuckerberg

My husband, an Israeli, said what’s happening today in the West Bank –- Ramallah and Bethlehem was how dogs were treated in Tiberias, Israel when he was a kid. The dogs were wild and a local butcher had the job of poisoning them. When the poison didn’t work he would smash the dogs heads in with a rock, sometimes in front of horrified children. As graphic and terrible as it was, this was the reality of the times and place then –- the reality that Diana is living with now, in the less developed Palestinian Authority. 

A picture of Jesus, no doubt her inspiration, graces her Facebook. What would Jesus think of abused donkeys in his birthtown Bethlehem? His hands outstretched to welcome all animals.

Diana sees her mission as God’s work.

There are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about animal rights. When Balaam was torturing his donkey who wanted to protect him from the Angel of Death. There is another passage about not taking away the eggs from a nest when a mother is watching, or not cooking the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother. 

Despite her abhorrence for animal cruelty and her fight against it, Diana is getting death threats in Bethlehem for her plan to build an animal shelter in the outskirts of the city. There is fighting at home too: Her father does not welcome the nine dogs she has brought home with her, and it’s a major cause for friction in the home.

Dian's pets at home

Diana’s pets at home

Diana barely sleeps and is free to answer any message I send her, no matter the time of day: “Many people appreciate me and think I am a saint, but I go to sleep drained of energy, with back pain. The puppies –- they need vaccines against diseases and these cost a lot of money with I cover with my own money if the donations don’t come in,” she says.

boy with big puppy

Our second puppy Shemesh

Her work life is now mixed with her animal rescue efforts –– the need for more resources has meant that Diana had to take on a job managing a bus station, which is not unlike fielding the dozens of calls and text messages she gets every day between found homeless dogs and people who could save or adopt them. The day when my puppies came I think we exchanged 10 calls and about 50 messages. Diana clearly needs more resources to do this important job and we want to help spread the word so she can focus on it full-time. 

Diana has a Master’s Degree in International Cooperation and Development and a Bachelor Degree in English Literature. She speaks 6 languages, and probably also the secret languages of animals

A calling from God

“Good people call me or reach out to me on Facebook when they find dogs with broken legs, covered in ticks, burned with acid. Nablus is lucky that they have an amazing vet who saves a lot of puppies for us in the entire West Bank it’s not enough,” she explains. 

“What we do is a fight here. It’s really a war. These are difficult times.

“Most of the local authorities support fundraising European Union money for building infrastructure but never do they think about approaching the EU for helping put a stop to stray dogs and taking care of them. Some of my work has been to convince the municipalities that they need to invest in space, land, a clinic, vets.

“I found some land, a big piece of land and I started building a shelter and people there started threatening my life because they didn’t want me to build an animal shelter near them, but if we had it with the help of my volunteers we could find forever homes for all these dogs in Israel. 

“Thousands of dogs are shot and killed by the police every year. Whatever they shoot they just throw in the trash. I’ve found puppies shot and they are terrified and crying and it’s horrible,” says Diana on the verge of tears. 

I can hear men calling her to work in the background. 

“We need awareness here for animal rights. And Covid is making everything worse,” she stresses. “I see more abuse and now have to rescue birds, rabbits, donkeys. Many of these animals I can send to a vegan farm sanctuary in Israel.

“Legally animals are not allowed to cross into Israel. But animals,” stresses Diana, “should not be involved in any human-based conflict. Period.”

“God is pushing me to do this work. I believe it is something sacred,” she concludes.

Want to help Diana save more puppies, dogs, donkeys, cats? Visit her website GofundMe page here or Venmo @bethlehemshelter. More is on her website here and their Facebook page here. If you are looking to adopt one of Diana’s pups, or to help her with bigger fundraising efforts with the EU please contact her on Whatsapp: +972 59-522-1771

 

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