Just 12 hours after first laying eyes on a picture of Pepsi, Kiera Doherty was making the hour-long trip to Ajman.
The tiny pup, his pointed ears almost as big as him, needed an urgent place to stay, and Doherty had space to offer him. “He cried and howled the entire way back to Dubai,” she says. “To be honest, I think we were both as surprised as each other to find us both in my living room that afternoon.”
Pepsi’s sudden arrival may have been a bit of a whirlwind, but Doherty had been dreaming of adopting a dog for many years. However, with a full-time job and an apartment with limited outdoor space, the time had never been right.
But as the portfolio director began working from her Dubai home due to coronavirus restrictions, things changed. "Over the past few years, I've followed just about every dog charity there is in the UAE and daydreamed about taking one in," she says. "I live in The Greens and as I watched my neighbours walk their dogs from my balcony, while still in my pyjamas at midday, I realised two things – I was in danger of working full-time from my duvet forever, and also that I now had more time at home than I was ever going to get again. Enough time to give a homeless dog a home, even for a short while."
Taking care of Pepsi was, initially, supposed to be on a short-term basis. The dog Doherty had always envisaged was older, the kind who would happily rest its head in her lap as she settled down for an evening of Netflix. Instead, three-month-old Pepsi brought with him sleepless nights, endless floor mopping, crack-of-dawn walks and the ability to bark through every work phone call.
“Everyone said I would end up keeping him and I was absolutely certain I would not,” she says. “But like all babies, I also got to watch him grow and he has grown so, so quickly. I got to watch his incredible little personality develop, realise how clever he is, let him meet my friends (in a socially distant manner), watch him confidently experience brand new things, and also run behind my legs when he’s a little bit overwhelmed by all the bigger dogs.”
Six weeks after that first drive to Ajman, Doherty signed the adoption papers and the pair went on a walk to celebrate. “I even put jeans on for the occasion,” she jokes.
Like a lot of people, isolation has been tough for Doherty, who lives alone. “Pepsi has given me structure, routine and focus, and makes me laugh and smile daily,” she says. “Without Pepsi I’d almost certainly still be working from home in my PJs, living on Instashop deliveries, bingeing on Netflix, not having seen another human for days on end.”
Doherty is only one of hundreds of people across the UAE who have used this strange and uncertain time to offer a pet a home. For many prospective pet owners, time is what holds them back, but the pandemic has forced us all to slow down, giving us more of it than ever before.
“We hadn’t considered adopting pets before coronavirus; however, a colleague of ours had to move into shared accommodation due to salary cuts and he was unable to take his cats with him,” says Giselle Harding, an events co-ordinator in Dubai. “He asked around, looking for someone to foster but who may be open to adopting them in the case that he can’t have them back. We have both had cats before and felt like it would be an easy transition.”
Although initially taking the cats in to help out a colleague, the animals have ended up being a huge help for Harding, too, acting as a saviour for her relationship and mental health, she says.
“We live in a one-bed apartment and both work from home, so lockdown has been testing. We have only been together for two years and some of that was spent in different countries, so it was pretty intense. “When the cats arrived, it gave us something to focus on and care for other than each other, which lifted the intensity a bit. They are gorgeous cats, albeit demanding, but we both love them. During the workday, when you would normally chat to someone by the coffee machine, we now take a break and play with the cats.”
For Rebecca McKillop-Haig, the arrival of her long-awaited puppy just so happened to coincide with the start of mass coronavirus restrictions in Dubai. While it had not been planned, the banker, 29, said she and her husband could not have adopted Caramel at a better time. They had been thinking of buying a puppy, but after seeing how many dogs in the UAE needed rehoming, decided to adopt instead.
“We were basically looking for small to medium dogs,” she says. “We nearly adopted a beagle twice but both times fell through. Then we saw Caramel on Para Dubai and just fell in love! She originally was adopted by another family, but they gave her up again as she is super-energetic and almost like a big dog in a small dog’s body. The foster mom remembered us and called me as soon as she was sure she was ready again to go to a new home.”
Caramel arrived at their Downtown Dubai home at the start of March, and, as she puts it, changed their lives forever as well as giving them a focus outside of work in the mundane day-to-day of life at home during the pandemic.
“She gives us so much love and affection, and she can tell when you’ve had a good or a bad day, so it is almost like therapy sometimes,” she says. “We are so grateful to Kirstin at Para for finding us again and anyone who works for these agencies – it’s amazing what they do.”
The mental health benefits of owning a pet have long been touted. Last year, a study conducted by research organisation Ipsos, on behalf of Boehringer Ingelheim pharmaceutical, sampled three groups of 3,000 people from five countries: healthy owners, owners with health problems, and owners with children suffering from health problems. The findings confirmed what many pet lovers have long suspected: dogs, cats and other pets have a positive impact on health, well-being and happiness.
More than 90 per cent of pet owners surveyed said their pets influence their quality of life, specifically in forming a strong emotional bond that can help them cope with or overcome physical and mental illness.
"Animals are so grateful for their relationship with you. They are thankful that you gave them a home and all that love," Dr Fadi Daoud, a veterinary surgeon at Australian Veterinary Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said in an interview with The National. "So when there is something [wrong], they are more than happy to return it back to you. They connect to you on a high emotional level that's almost unbelievable."
And with pet owners now spending more time with their animals than ever before, that connection is even stronger. Faye Green, a legal secretary in Dubai, has fostered cats on and off for years, but she has never had a connection quite like the one she has with Frankie, the cat she took in during the lockdown period after her previous owner was forced to relocate to the UK.
“Lockdown has been made really fun living with Frankie – she makes me laugh and smile every day,” Green says. “I got her a lion haircut and get messages from my neighbours as she trots around as though she owns the place. I love her so much and she really is the best cat I have ever been around.”
While many people have taken in pets with the view of looking after them temporarily, many have found their way into their owners' hearts for good, as is the case with Doherty, and The National's Liz Cookman, who took in three-year-old cat Soo at the start of lockdown.
“I wasn’t really considering adopting, but I saw a Facebook post about a really fluffy, friendly kitten that had just had surgery and really needed a short-term home while she recovered. I offered to foster her as we are at home most of the time now anyway, so why not be at home with something cute?” she says.
The rescuer instead turned up with an ‘also in need’ three-year-old cat which hid under her sofa for three days. “But despite a few weeks of weeing on my bed and the complete destruction of my furniture, I am completely smitten and don’t think I could give her up again,” she says. “I have taught her to give me her paw and high five – she’s a TikTok star in the making – and she sits on the chair next to me as I work. I love her and her sass.”