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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 February 2021

At UAE Pet Lovers, a woman on a mission

Afra al Dhaheri is fighting the public and the municipality to fulfill her vision of providing a safe haven for stray animals.
Afra al Dhaheri is the founder and driving force behind UAE Pet Lovers.
Afra al Dhaheri is the founder and driving force behind UAE Pet Lovers.

ABU DHABI // In the middle of an important meeting, Afra al Dhaheri pauses and asks: "Do you hear that?" 

It was the sound of a kitten in distress just outside the building. She later rescued it and bottle fed it back to health.

Fitingly, she had been meeting to go over details of a loan from Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Fund for the development of a "pet hotel" that, besides its boarding and grooming facilities, would shelter strays and abandoned animals. "I couldn't just sit back and allow the abuse and abandonment of animals to continue in my home country without fighting back with awareness and sustainable solutions," says Ms al Dhaheri.

At 23, the founder of the UAE Pet Lovers is an Emirati atthe forefront of a growing movement to rescue animals and educate the community about their welfare. "People just don't put a lot of thought or care into the pets they get, with many of the kittens and puppies ending up abandoned once they grow up as they weren't considered cute anymore," says Ms al Dhaheri, who often goes to schools to educate young children about the importance of mercy and kindness towards animals.

She was met with resistance and ridicule when she launched her group on Facebook two years ago, with just 13 members signing up in the beginning. "Like most of my Emirati friends I didn't know much about adopting a rescued animal, until someone suggested it to me while I was at the vet with my dog," she says. But slowly, through her efforts of rescuing and re-homing animals, as well as showing up at government entities with cases of animal abuse and calls for reinforcement of animal welfare law, she has been able to change some attitudes towards animals. "I refuse to be silent, and insist on being heard, regardless of who is in front of me," she says.

After a slow start, UAE Pet Lovers has more than 1,500 members and growing - but there is more work to be done. "There is a new trend among the young Emiratis of buying pets as birthday gifts, which, of course, we are against and are doing everything possible to stop that from spreading," says Ms al Dhaheri. With no options for earning a veterinary degree available to her within the UAE, Ms al Dhaheri instead took up hospitality management. She juggles school and a part-time job at a hotel with her work taking care of animals in distress.

There are five dogs to take care of and 10 cats, as well as a steady supply of strays to foster. She does not mind the sacrifices. "I love animals, my entire family loves animals, and I hope to make others love them as well," she says. There is an air conditioned cat house in her family's garden while the dogs have their own space in the house and often run around the garden with the cats. One of the dogs, Papi, a brown silky terrier, came to Ms al Dhaheri rescue last year when she was being attacked by her neighbour's five German Shepherds. The brave Papi lost an eye and suffered a broken jaw defending Ms Dhaheri. "That is just one example of a pet's devotion to its caretaker," she said, kissing Papi.

Her greatest supporter is her sister Alia, 24, who is prone to jumping out of her car to feed a stray, or even reprimand someone she sees abusing an animal. She was also the mastermind behind the group's logo and posters, and spends hours photographing the animals so they will be more likely to be adopted. She also wants to change perceptions about strays and prompt more Emiratis to consider adopting them. "There is this belief here that if an animal is stray and is not bought from a pet store, then it is diseased and sick."

In the most recent challenge, Abu Dhabi Municipality has said the pet hotel must be run in a building, and not a villa with a garden. However, Ms al Dhaheri refuses to give up her vision and she believes some of the UAE's wealth should be used to accommodate its strays. "Change never comes easy, and someone has to be the first to do this," she says. "I will not give up on our dream of providing a safe haven for the animals in the UAE."

Published: October 1, 2010 04:00 AM

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