Falcons soar and Salukis run, but the Mau paws alone

All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

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'The one who doesn't know the falcon then might as well grill it." This Arab proverb suggests that those who don't know the value of something might see it as worthless. But I would like to point out that for anything to become valuable, it needs to be noticed, before it is too late.

The battle to save animals, birds and plants - particularly indigenous ones - from extinction is not a losing battle. But the war is not won.

I was reminded of this basic idea this week. In an isolated desert camp between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, there were races of all sorts in celebration of the 2nd International Festival of Falconry.

In one corner you had the sharp merciless falcons, shooting into the skies with such speed and precision that no living prey that happened to be flying or hopping about stood a chance against these aerial hunters.

In another corner, you had the slender Arabian Salukis, one of the world's oldest breed of dogs (over 13,000 years old) jumping all over their caretakers, before bolting after a mummified deer as part of a race.

But in the middle of the dust cloud of racing there stood one lone onlooker, a beast that once had a significant mention in Arab culture but has since been largely forgotten. With her bright golden oval-shaped eyes, the black and white Arabian Mau pawed at the ground, showing little interest in the proceedings. Indeed, I was more interested in her than she in me.

Muscular with long legs and oval paws, defined by its slightly curved profile, prominent chin, and large ears set to the sides, this cat has a distinct appearance if you look carefully. An original breed, you can see how they are built to survive the extreme desert terrains.

I am no feline expert, but I happened to have gone to a cat show where the Arabian Mau contestants were being judged by an international panel, and that is how they distinguished them from the other breeds. "They are one of the world's oldest cats, even older than Salukis," the expert said.

The Arabian Mau, native to the UAE and Arabian peninsula, was recognised in 2008 as "an original" and "proper" short-haired breed by the World Cat Federation. This has been largely due to the efforts of one woman, Petra Mueller, the president of the Middle East Cat Society.

The troubling aspect of all this recognition is that while the international world understands the Mau's value, many people in the UAE don't. I will not go into how depressing it is to see them hurt or killed by traffic, or abused or even shot, but you get the point.

There are many records of this kitty's presence in our culture, in poems and narrations about the Prophet Mohammed, his wives and companions. Even the messenger was saved from a snake by a cat and is believed to have had a cat pet. A legend holds that the "M" marking on the forehead of the Mau was created by the Prophet as he rested his hand lightly on the brow of his favourite feline. And who can forget Abu Hurayrah, the father of kittens, named so for always being seen with his cat?

A recent National Geographic special underscores this animal's longevity. Apparently, scientists have identified the house cat's maternal ancestors and traced them back to a Mideast wildcat that roamed the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and other Arab countries.

This means that these ancient wildcats, known as Near Eastern wildcats, were likely the first cats to be domesticated. Man's domestication of cats may have actually started in this region.

Which begs the question: why do we fawn over falcons and coo over camels, but the lowly cat paws alone?

As I looked at this Arabian Mau sitting there in the desert under a thorny bush, I was comforted by one thought - that it actually looked better than the malnourished and ill-kept cats of the city.

Shouldn't all such national treasures be so lucky?