I've lost count of the exact number of animals that have passed through my life and home in the 13 years I have lived in the UAE, but it’s at least 50, probably more.
First was Anzac, found in Satwa as a puppy and named after the day she came into my life. A desert dog the colour of popcorn, she was the embodiment of love and I was enraptured from the moment I laid eyes on her.
After two weeks, the question "when is the dog going?" fell away to silence. She was part of the family, even as she ate my sunglasses and stole the neighbour's shoes. Next was a skinny street cat I called Bagheera after the character in The Jungle Book. I lived on the first floor, and he would climb a tree to join in breakfast every morning.
Then there was the cat who lived on the kitchen window sill. With a serious (and I found out, incurable) mouth condition, he struggled to eat, so I supplied his nourishment mashed up. In return, he kept me company as I did the washing up.
When I moved into a bigger house, I started taking in foster cats from established charities such as Feline Friends.
I have had cats of all ages come through my doors, riddled with parasites and infections, with broken bones and non-working limbs. Kittens have come and gone, leaving their ringworm and teeth marks behind. My house has taken a battering, every soft surface having been used to sharpen claws.
There were the three long-haired cats that had been sealed into a box and left on the street in midsummer. Next came three "teenage" feline boys, who would fight to sit on my lap, meaning I regularly ended up with a face full of cat. When one disappeared, I was heartbroken, until, identified by his microchip, he turned up in Umm Suqeim, having somehow crossed the 12 lanes of Sheikh Zayed Road. An adventurer at heart.
I have scooped up birds that have flown into cars, setting them up, temporarily, of course, in a cage kept for precisely this purpose, and I briefly lived with a tortoise found wandering the streets. There was also the terrified rabbit found on the street, thrown out like a piece of rubbish.
I have come home to find a box of starving kittens on my doorstep, and once, when driving away from a garden centre, a young cat jumped into my car and simply refused to leave. It’s like he knew I was someone likely to take him in, and of course I took him home.
I volunteered for dog-walking at a rescue centre, and when a dog came and put his head in my lap, my heart was lost. He came home with me.
Another dog arrived jumping with fleas and chewed holes in all my bedding, and I had a pure-bred cocker spaniel dumped on me by someone going away for "the weekend". When he died recently, I cried for days.
'I have cried more tears than I thought possible’
Each time an animal is rehomed, I am left in tears, even though I know it is the fairy tale ending. Others have had harsher fates. I have witnessed animals poisoned, hit by cars, and collapse and die in the space of 15 minutes. I have lost count of the times I have had my heart broken, and have cried more tears than I thought possible.
I spend hundreds of dirhams every month on animal food, and I am on a first-name basis with the team at my local vet. I am an expert at introducing new animals into the household, and recycle pet food tins by the sackload. Every conceivable space seems to have an animal asleep in it (including sinks) and I beg friends to tell me the moment my house starts smelling of cats.
Some of Sarah’s recent foster friends:
As I write this, my eight-year-old pup is at the vet, hooked up to a drip to nurture his failing kidneys and fight a tick-borne parasite. And that was before we discovered the mass on his lungs. Three eight-week-old kittens are tearing around the living room "killing" a paper bag, while in the spare room, three even smaller kittens are sharpening their claws on my favourite chair.
I have been emotionally battered and financially impoverished. I live with second-hand furniture, my "nice" things all stored in high cupboards and I'm regularly woken by cat fights and dogs barking. There always seems to be a trail of blood somewhere in the house, my arms and legs are a blizzard of scars, and everything I own is punctured with teeth marks.
But this is why it’s worth it ...
I am repeatedly asked why I do this to myself and the answer is very simple. Giving sanctuary to an animal in desperate need is a beautiful opportunity. I offer shelter and food and in return they give me unconditional love.
I haven’t watched TV for years because frankly, nothing on the screen will ever be as entertaining as the animals in my house, and I have laughed until my sides ache at the chaos they create.
I have explored every inch of this beautiful country with an assortment of dogs by my side. I’ve watched frightened animals come out of their shells, and seen the happiness as they join their new family.
I have watched starved animals lose their haunted look and plump out into sleek, healthy adults, and watched children overcome their fear of animals as they tentatively pet one of my herd.
I have lost count of how many times my dogs and I have been invited to join in on a family's barbecue while out walking, and one of my favourite days was spent with an Emirati family. I threw balls for the dogs with the older matriarch, charmed by the laughter coming from under her burqa.
The children of my neighbourhood all know me as "aunty" because of the endless dog walking, and I will happily strike up conversation with anyone holding a dog lead.
Through collecting, nurturing, and rehoming animals, I have crossed paths with people I might never have met otherwise, bringing wonderful, enriching friendships into my life. I am lucky to have spent the past 13 years covered in cat fur and filled with joy.
If I had this time again, would I do the same? Absolutely. Fostering animals is quite simply the best thing I have ever done.
Some of Sarah’s kittens bewildered by her robo vacuum: