Animals Lebanon & Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals scramble to aid animal survivors
BEIRUT, Lebanon––How many chickens lived and died to blow up Beirut?
Probably millions, but that toll––like all others pertaining to animals––eludes estimation from the available data about the August 4, 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion that killed at least 158 humans outright, injured more than 6,000, and killed or injured thousands of animals on land, at sea, and in the air as well.
Ammonium nitrate fertilizer and mining explosives are commonly made from ammonia and nitrogen extracted from the manure of factory-farmed poultry. The chicken poop that blew up Beirut probably came from chickens raised in Russia, since the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that accidentally detonated came from there.
But there is sufficient international trade in chemical ingredients that technically the points of origin might have been almost anywhere that poultry poop is produced in commercially valuable tonnage.
Pressure wave gave some animals & humans a chance
Few chickens were evident, dead or alive, in the immediate wake of the Beirut port explosion. Any birds, and indeed almost any living being nearby, probably died within seconds from either the force of the blast itself, or from flying and falling debris.
But as Wired writer Rachel Lance explained on August 6, 2020, the toll would almost certainly have been magnitudes of order higher if a “high” explosive had been involved. So-called “high” explosives generate a shock wave that moves faster than the speed of sound.
Anyone within a mile or more of the Beirut explosion might have been killed outright by “lung trauma,” Lance assessed, had there been a shock wave.
Instead there was a “pressure wave,” moving at less than half the speed of a shock wave and slowing much more rapidly: magnitudes of order less deadly and destructive, even if it did leave as many as 300,000 Beirut residents and their companion animals homeless, due to glass breakage and structural damage to high-rise apartment buildings which in many instances may be irreparable.
Many more animals than humans may have died
The comparable 1917 harbor explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, killed 1,950 people and injured more than 8,000. The number of human deaths in Beirut is believed to be unlikely to exceed 10% of the Halifax toll.
But the number of animal deaths in and around Beirut may be incalculably higher.
Though Beirut is, for the most part, a densely populated city of about 2.4 million people, relatively few people actually lived and/or worked among the wharfs, warehouses, and miscellaneous other port facilities that immediately surrounded the Beirut explosion site. The hard-hit high-rise buildings were mostly far enough away that the residents, both animal and human, had a few split-seconds in which to dive or run for cover before the pressure wave struck.
Other factors mitigated the body count.
Grain silo may feed surviving birds & rodents
Much of the force of the blast in Warehouse 12 was absorbed by the multi-story battery of reinforced concrete grain silos just to the south, across an access road. Built in 1965, the grain silos served at times as a bomb shelter during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, which killed more than 120,000 people.
An estimated 15,000 metric tons of wheat spilled out of the badly damaged grain silos. That cost Lebanon, already experiencing food shortages, most of the wheat reserves in the country.
The spilled wheat, mixed with concrete dust, soot, broken glass, and other debris, was immediately condemned as irrecoverable for safe human consumption. But the wheat may prove to be a boon to pigeons, gulls, other birds, and any rats and mice who survived to scurry out of the rubble.
Livestock carriers likely to be scrapped
Just beyond the grain silos, three livestock carriers took more of the force of the explosion. The Abou Karim I, built in 1971, had not hauled sheep, goats, and cattle in nearly five years. The Abou Karim III, built in 1981, last hauled livestock in 2018. Both ships were so severely damaged as to be considered irreparable.
The Jouri, built in 1999, had only been converted from a car ferry to a livestock carrier in April 2020. The Jouri too may never again put to sea.
Much of the explosion radiated out over the Mediterranean Sea, to the northwest, west, and southwest, and straight up into the air. More of the force went downward, digging a pit 140 feet deep and nearly 400 feet across that rapidly became a new ship-sized inlet to the sea.
Any nearby marine animals likely were killed. Potentially vulnerable were fish, sea turtles, as many as 17 cetacean species sometimes seen in Lebanese waters, and highly endangered Mediterranean monk seals.
Animals Lebanon reports on rescue effort
“I really have no information on marine life,” Animals Lebanon executive director Jason Mier told ANIMALS 24-7. “Only in last two days could we get closer to main blast area,” which was clearly visible within a mile of his apartment, “all blocked off by security. Closer to the blast. Mier observed, “there were so many dead pigeons.”
Mier said Animals Lebanon, founded in 2008 to operate the first spay/neuter program in the nation, was “coordinating with Civil Defense and the Red Cross/Red Crescent for anything in the security zone, as they have access.”
An August 8, 2020 memo from Mier to Vier Pfoten veterinarian Amir Khalil furnished further information about the Animals Lebanon rescue efforts.
Mier set as the Animals Lebanon goal “To provide every single animal injured or lost in the explosion with the care they need, and to provide assistance with animals for every affect pet owner.”
Specifically, that means “reuniting lost pets, rescuing pets trapped or hiding in damaged or destroyed areas and buildings, [providing] veterinary care for injured animals, caring for animals whose guardians sadly passed away, providing pet food and supplies to those most affected to help get them through the next month, caring for rescued animals who will eventually need great new homes,” and “removing animals who died in the explosion.”
One week of emergency response, then reassessment
Mier said the Animals Lebanon team, consisting of himself, his wife Maggie Shaarawi, and about a dozen regular volunteers, were “deployed to help two hours after the explosion,” after members ensured their own families and animals were safe.
During the next four days, Mier detailed, Animals Lebanon personnel spent 88 hours on the ground in the affected area, received more than 300 requests for help, enlisted 202 spontaneous volunteers to assist in search and rescue and care of animals, provided veterinary care to 57 animals, evacuated 42 animals to the Animals Lebanon shelter, determined that eight rescued animals would need new adoptive homes, reunited 61 animals with their people, found and removed the remains of 18 dead animals, and distributed about 640 pounds of dog and cat food.
Mier anticipated continuing the emergency first response until one week after the explosion. Then, he said, “We will reassess the needs and continue.”
“We recommend against coming”
“We recommend against coming at this immediate time,” Mier emphasized to non-Lebanese organizations and concerned individuals.
“With coronavirus, the ongoing problems here, all the damage and chaos of the explosion, and now violent protests,” Mier said, “we are recommending against anyone coming to help in the next week. If the situation improves, then we certainly welcome people coming to assist.”
However, the situation seemed unlikely to improve soon, as anti-government rioting intensified over the next several days in response to widening recognition that the Lebanese government had confiscated the ammonium nitrate six years earlier from a Moldovian-flagged ship that was deemed unseaworthy, stored it where it exploded, and ignored more than five years of warnings from port officials that it posed an imminent hazard.
“Despite the difficult economic time,” Mier continued, with the explosion occurring amid runaway inflation and shortages of nearly everything, “ we believe it is only right to spend where we can now to help; but this is money that was not budgeted for. It is difficult to access funds in our bank,” Mier explained, “because of the ongoing financial crisis, and local donations are impossible now.”
Mier identified as immediate needs “Funding for veterinary care, transport crates, trapping cages, capture equipment, volunteer support, protective equipment, transportation, and animal food,” amid “serious concerns about the availably of supplies. We must identify way to import wet and dry cat and dog food, cat litter, and medication.
“We need to regroup as an organization,” Mier continued, “put things back in order, fix our office, and see how to move forward under these new conditions, as well as see how the needs of affected animals and pet owners will change over the coming weeks.”
Vier Pfoten and Animals Lebanon in December 2019 partnered in rescuing two bears and a young female lion, among other animals, from roadside zoos in southern Lebanon.
“We still have a number of wild animals that need to be rehomed,” Mier mentioned. “They were not affected by the explosion, as they are all outside of Beirut. We hired a person who has volunteered with us for a few years to take over the daily care of these animals, as I cannot now focus on that.”
“Family members & friends’ lives lost”
Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [BETA], founded in 2004, had already posted an urgent appeal for help to Facebook on August 7, 2020.
“Despite tragedy, turmoil, anger and frustration,” BETA said, “we have teams on the ground searching for dogs and cats who got extremely distressed at the time of the explosion, and ran away from the shattered glass and broken doors and windows. Some pet guardians were reunited with their pets and other victims’ pets were adopted immediately.
“We are heartbroken, and our hearts shattered to a million pieces with family members and friends’ lives lost in the explosion,” BETA added, “but we need to continue our work. Our cat food provider’s long-awaited container was at the port of Beirut––ground zero––and even though not knowing its destiny is a detail compared to the loss of lives and a whole city, our cats are currently left with barely days to go.
“Our shelters were not affected and the animals unharmed, luckily, but we still have to ensure the basic needs of the animals under our care, who have endured a lot already.”
How to help
In view of the current unreliability of Lebanese financial services and the runaway inflation in Lebanon, would-be donors are urged to contact Animals Lebanon and/or BETA directly before attempting to send aid, to ensure that whatever is sent actually arrives where it can be used.
Both Animals Lebanon and BETA are accessible through a variety of social media, but due to the post-explosion chaos, may not be able to respond immediately to messages, so patience is advised.
And now more about ammonium nitrate
And now a few more words about one of the less recognized hazards of factory farming, and how it came to compound the misery in Lebanon, a nation which has already endured much over the past half century.
Developed in 1903, to extract ammonium nitrate from naturally occurring guano deposits left by sea birds on remote islands, the basic process of using the guano from dead sea birds to blow the poop out of still-living beings and inanimate objects was modified by German chemists during World War I to make use of homegrown chicken guano instead.
Ammonium nitrate production has grown parallel to factory poultry farming ever since.
Apart from ammonium nitrate explosions associated with warfare, the August 4, 2020 Beirut explosion was the biggest yet of at least 47 accidental detonations over the past century-plus involving ammonium nitrate made and/or stored for civilian use.
Source often overlooked
That such blasts typically harm as many animals as humans is often noted, if not always.
That they result indirectly from human exploitation of animals, however, tends to go unnoticed, because by the time ammonium nitrate is bagged, transported, and/or stored by any purpose, it long since ceased to be recognizable as being, in any way, an animal product or byproduct.
It is, by the way, possible to bypass any use of poultry excrement, or any excrement, in ammonium nitrate manufacture.
However, with poultry guano abundantly available worldwide, and not otherwise of commercial value, it remains among the cheapest and most accessible base stocks from which ammonia and nitrogen may be extracted.