Man Risks His Life To Care For Cats Trapped In Middle Of War

“I feel the danger all around me, but the cats give me the courage to stay. I could not leave them.”

It’s been nearly a year since Mohammad Alaa Jaleel, known as Alaa, rebuilt Il Gattaro D'Aleppo, a famous cat sanctuary in war-torn Syria, after the original sanctuary got bombed. Since then, Alaa and his team have worked tirelessly to create a new refuge for the surviving cats in his care — but sadly, the fighting is getting close again.

Last May, Il Gattaro D'Aleppo was rebuilt on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, in a neighborhood relatively sheltered from the fighting. The original sanctuary, which was called the House of Cats Ernesto in honor of Alaa’s cat Ernesto, had been destroyed by bombs. Two of the cats and a resident dog named Hope died.

Syrian Man hugging cats to him
Alaa hugging a couple of the cats who live at the new sanctuary | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

Now, the new sanctuary is home to more than 60 cats, four rescued monkeys, a few rabbits, doves and dogs. Alaa also takes care of around 30 neighborhood cats. But in the past few weeks, there have been gunshots and explosions on the streets, putting everyone’s safety at risk.

Cats sitting on ledge of cat sanctuary
Some of the resident cats sitting in the sanctuary's courtyard | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

“The streets are littered with shell cases and our wall was hit,” Alaa, who is often called Aleppo’s “Cat Man,” told The Dodo. “There are heavy artillery and snipers. Our gattaro [cat rescue] team were unable to get into work some days and stayed barricaded in their houses. Dr. Youssef, our vet, made a very dangerous journey to get from his home and into [the sanctuary] one day, dodging behind trees and buildings to avoid being seen and shot.”

Video taken on March 22, 2018

Alaa and the sanctuary team risk their lives every time they leave the shelter to get supplies like food or gasoline. And Alaa, who also works as an ambulance driver, regularly drives into the most dangerous parts of Aleppo to help bombing victims.

Some of the cats have gotten used to the sounds of fighting, Alaa explains, but others are understandably frightened.

Army tank driving down the street
An army tank on the street outside the sanctuary earlier this month | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

“[They] try to hide or they stay inside, especially when the fighting is very close and the sounds are deafeningly loud,” Alaa said. “Sometimes they ... do not eat their food. They need lots of love and attention at such times.”

Neighborhood cats also take refuge at Il Gattaro D'Aleppo, even though they don’t normally live there. “They seem to follow our cats back to the safety of the sanctuary,” Alaa said. “They do not come down into the sanctuary though — they remain up high on the walls and the roofs so I offer them food up there. They eat and then go away again.”

Man holding cat in front of ambulance
Alaa holding one of the cats in front of his ambulance | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

Ernesto, Alaa’s cat and the sanctuary’s mascot, went missing for an entire week during the fighting, and Alaa was worried sick. Thankfully, Ernesto returned, but Alaa is constantly worried about everyone’s safety.

“In the days of the fighting, we found several cats dead outside,” Alaa said. “They were not sanctuary cats, but sometimes when our cats are too frightened they will run away.”

Man hugging cats
Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

At the moment, Alaa doesn’t plan on moving the cats or the sanctuary, although he always has to keep this possibility in mind. But leaving would be difficult, Alaa explained.

Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

“I cannot know which areas will be safe, and I can’t forecast where we would be able to go,” Alaa said. “Lots of borders within Syria are closed. Freedom of movement is not something I can take for granted.”

Cats inside cat village
The new sanctuary has an indoor cat village with an individual house for each cat | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

Despite the dangers, Alaa and his team spend their days making sure the sanctuary cats are happy and healthy. With donations coming in from supporters, the team has built a magical indoor cat village with individual houses for each cat. They also built a veterinary clinic where Dr. Youssef, the resident vet, offers free vet care, including spaying and neutering, to all local animals.

Vet holding cat patient
Dr. Youssef holding one of his patients | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

In the sanctuary’s courtyard, there are photographs of the original sanctuary, which Alaa said helps remind the team of happier times. There’s also a flower garden.

Man holding cats in courtyard
Alaa holding Ernesto and Sparks in front of a photograph of a little girl who used to visit the old sanctuary | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

“The garden at the sanctuary is important,” Alaa said. “The flowers remind us that spring is here, but even in the Syrian winter it is a place for the cats to scratch and dig and play. There is always grass growing there which they like to eat and trees to climb and places to hide. The cats love the garden.”

Cat enjoying a flower garden
One of the cats relaxing in the garden | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

In the past, Alaa brought school kids to the sanctuary to visit the cats, although this has become impossible recently with all the fighting.

Cat sleeping in sunshine
One of the cats napping in the sunlit garden | Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

During this difficult period of war, Alaa finds joy simply by spending time with the cats he loves. “These cats are everything to me,” Alaa said. “They are my children. I spend more time with cats than I do with humans, so yes, I am their father.”

Man kissing cats
Il Gattaro D'Aleppo

Alaa hopes that the cats and the sanctuary team will remain safe where they are. But if violence forces them to move again, Alaa won’t leave one cat behind.

“Of course I am always a little afraid,” Alaa said. “We are living in a war zone with all the risks that that brings — through a war that has raged for seven long years, and which has claimed the lives of over 465,000 people. But we try to carry on our lives as normally as we can. I feel the danger all around me, but the cats give me the courage to stay. I could not leave them.”

Man hugging cats at sanctuary
Il Gattaro D'Aleppo
To learn how you can help the cats living at Il Gattaro D'Aleppo, you can request to join this private Facebook group. You can also help buy food for the cats by making a donation.