Desert heroes: how one family has saved thousands of stray dogs in Umm Al Quwain

The New Zealanders behind the Stray Dogs Centre UAQ are working tirelessly to keep stray dogs safe, and they hope to one day run a 'free range' centre where pups can roam

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Faith was left to die. Unable to move, the stray white dog had been shot, with parts of the bullet still lodged in her right shoulder and shards of shrapnel in her spinal cord. With her head against a rock in the middle of the desert, she was left paralysed and helpless. Alerted to her situation, the Stray Dogs Centre UAQ knew they had to get to her. Despite initially fearing the worst, after months of rehabilitation, Faith not only survived, but has since found a new forever home with a family in Dubai.

This heart-wrenching case is just one of many the team at the Stray Dogs Centre in Umm Al Quwain faces regularly. The non-profit organisation was created in 2014 after Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, the Ruler of the emirate, gifted land to Amirah William, a New Zealander, on which the centre could be built. William had been keeping rescued animals in her villa, but ­neighbours complained.

She was forced to find a new home within two weeks. Thankfully, after meeting with the municipality and submitting her proposal for the centre, she was granted the land. Five years later, it’s operating as one of the top rescue organisations for dogs in the country.

Hidden in the desert, the Stray Dogs Centre UAQ can be tricky to find on your first go. But once you know where it is (off an Adnoc stop on the highway), you can’t miss it. As you walk through, you really get a sense of what the organisation does. There are dozens of dogs and puppies of all different breeds, most are a desert mix, and they’re housed in kennels depending on their temperament. The team here has certainly done their fair share of rescuing. People might think kennels seem like a depressing place for an animal, but it surely beats being homeless and living under the relentless UAE sun.

William runs the centre with the help of her daughter, Marz Roberts, and son-in-law, Te Tapua Roberts. Together with a few workers, they are helping to save as many stray and ­abandoned dogs as they can. There are about 330 animals (almost all of which are up for adoption), despite the fact the centre’s capacity was originally for only 180.

They might be overloaded, but they continue to rescue. However, they have stopped ­accepting dogs from other emirates unless the case is severe. They have the support of Umm Al Quwain's Ruler and municipality, and do have a strong relationship with the Umm Al Quwain police. "We're really happy with the direction that we're moving in together and with the support the Umm Al Quwain police are giving us," says William.

UMM ALQUWAIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - One of the stray dogs at the Stray Dog Centre, Umm AL Quwain.  Ruel Pableo for The National for Evelyn Lau's story
Almost all of the dogs at the centre are up for adoption. Ruel Pableo for The National

The centre does have to raise their own money and, with pet food ranging from about Dh20,000 to Dh22,000 a month and the cost of diesel (which they use to fuel the generators on site) around Dh1,100 a week, it can be a struggle.

“We always need money and that’s not an over-exaggeration,” says Marz. “We rely on public support to operate. Our bills aren’t cheap.” She adds that vet bills can also range from a minimum of Dh15,000 up to Dh60,000 per month.

How the public can help

To help offset costs, there are activities that people can partake in and donations are always welcome. The centre is open to the public four days a week, including on Fridays and Saturdays, and volunteers can head over to walk the dogs. Groups can also drop by for team-building sessions or school trips – as long as you book an appointment.

It’s easy to see why people choose to volunteer. As the sun begins to set, the temperatures cool down and the desert is picturesque. It’s a great place to walk or cuddle a dog. That’s why, during the weekends, the centre sometimes sees as many as 80 to 90 volunteers come down, and Marz has noticed a promising trend. “We’ve had more young people coming up here. We’ve had students from schools and parents who bring their kids,” she says. And even though some parents may be hesitant to interact with a dog themselves, she can see how being around them impacts a child.

UMM ALQUWAIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Volunteers donate time to walk the dogs at the Stray Dog Centre, Umm AL Quwain.  Ruel Pableo for The National for Evelyn Lau's story
Volunteers come to the centre to help walk dogs. Ruel Pableo for The National

“For us, even if [parents] don’t walk or touch a dog, it’s promising. It’s awareness. They see what’s here. The younger generation is becoming more aware about animal abuse and how to treat animals. They are becoming more open-minded towards things.”

The first emirate to be street-dog-free?

We have a phenomenal support system. None of this would be here if it wasn't for our supporters. This is hundreds of thousands of dirhams' worth of work. We're very fortunate.

She hopes this will become a catalyst for change. Thankfully, Umm Al Quwain is making strides when it comes to animal safety laws. Marz tells us how Sheikh Saud wants the emirate to be the first to be completely street dog-free.

The plan is for any dog to be taken in by the centre, but that’s tough when it’s already full – which is why getting the dogs adopted is so crucial. But there are plans to expand, as they were gifted more land. With that, they would also like to create a free range, which would consist of feeding stations as well as water and shade for rescued dogs. Gathering enough money and resources to make this happen, however, will take time.

“We have a phenomenal support system,” says Marz. “None of this would be here if it wasn’t for our supporters. This is hundreds of thousands of dirhams’ worth of work. We’re very fortunate.” However, as the Stray Dogs Centre UAQ continues to grow, she hopes to one day make it more self-sufficient. “­People leave, some people’s circumstances may change. We can’t keep relying on public ­support forever.”