Fur, feathers, but no fable: Abu Dhabi shelter does not quit on animals

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The survival of a three-legged superstar saluki brings the work of Margit Muller and the staff of Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter to life in a very vivid way, in a welfare story that began in a medical centre to treat the UAE’s regal falcons.

Most people would probably have given up on adopting out the three-legged saluki, whose leg was crushed in a car accident.

But Margit Muller, the executive director of Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter, isn’t most people.

“We don’t want to give up on any animal,” she says. “I think that it’s a responsibility of this shelter not to let them down.”

It took nine months to find a home for the saluki after he was discovered bleeding in the street and taken to the shelter. Last month he was back, healthy and happy, for his yearly vaccinations.

“He’s a superstar now in the compound where he lives – his new owners would do anything for this dog.”

Dr Muller also recalls the cat who was adopted despite being completely blind after suffering from an infection in both eyes.

“She’s learnt to find her way around the flat. Her owner understands never to move the furniture.”

The shelter, which is on the Sweihan Road near Abu Dhabi Airport, is home to 70 dogs and 110 cats. Next door, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital treats 10,000 birds a year.

“I know its weird – falcons here and pets there,” says Ms Muller.

When the centre opened in 1999, the falcons were the only residents. Dr Muller, a German veterinarian with an interest in the birds, moved to Abu Dhabi in 2001 “to bring the facility up to international standards”.

Five years later, the hospital started accepting other birds.

“We’ve had the occasional ostrich and a canary with a broken leg, which we fixed,” she says “We’ve also had very funny parrots, which we needed to look up in a book to find out what they were.”

In 2007, when a customer needed long-term medical treatment in Europe, the centre also became a boarding house and hospital for animals of the non-feathered variety.

“He brought his falcon to me and said ‘Can you take care of my falcon?’ I agreed – and then he said ‘By the way, I also have a cat’. I thought ‘Oh, with all these falcons here?’ But I found a place. We then started wondering what other people do with their pets when they go away.”

Meanwhile, as Abu Dhabi’s population grew, so did the number of stray cats and dogs.

“You’d be walking in the street and see dogs roaming around everywhere, as well as cats,” says Ms Muller.

She was asked by the Government to come up with a plan and proposed a trap-neuter-return (TNR) programme for cats, and a new shelter for domesticated animals.

The plan was approved in 2010 and the shelter was built the following year.

Any strays found on the streets by Tadweer (the Centre of Waste Management) are taken to the shelter.

“The feral cats return to the streets castrated, so we control the wild population,” says Dr Muller. “Because we return them to the place where they were trapped, we also avoid the problem of other cats taking over their territory.”

But inevitably, not all the 5,000 to 8,000 cats brought in each year from all over Abu Dhabi emirate are feral. Dr Muller estimates that 1 to 5 per cent are domestic cats who have been abandoned or escaped.

The shelter’s staff look for signs of domestication– “a collar, a microchip or if they’re a desirable breed, such as Persian”, says Dr Muller. They either try to return them or have them adopted.

As for dogs, “they stay in the shelter until they find an owner”.

The shelter’s efforts over the past six years have meant that stray dogs are rare these days in Abu Dhabi, and the feral cat population is more controlled – and healthier.

“Now, they have enough food and territory to survive easily,” says Dr Muller. “In the beginning, those cats were all bones and fur, and they often had nasty injuries because they were fighting. Now we get fat, healthy feral cats, because they have more space in their territories so they’re not fighting as much.”

Well-intentioned people try to feed the stray cats they come across, but she does not recommend it.

“In Abu Dhabi, no cats are starving because people are throwing away too much food. These cats go to the bins and are in paradise. And feral cats learn from their mothers how to find food.”

In the summer, the number of animals in the shelter swells, as that’s when more pets are abandoned.

“A lot were adopted at the beginning of the school year, so the number is currently lower,” says Dr Muller.

It costs Dh400 to adopt one of the shelter’s animals, which covers neutering (unless it’s a kitten), microchipping and vaccination.

“The fee is more of a screening process,” Ms Muller says. “The idea is that if you take something for free, then you don’t value it. But if you’re ready to pay for the adoption, then you’re ready to pay to take care of the pet.”

Of course, the fluffy golden retriever puppy dropped off last week will be adopted faster than any older dogs, or crossbreeds.

“This one I’m not worried at all, he will go like a hot cake,” says Dr Muller, who has adopted five dogs through the shelter.

The centre rarely receives exotic animals – “People wouldn’t dare to bring us lions or tigers” – but it does get turtles, tortoises, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, who are “easily rehomed”.

At the beginning, DrMuller admits it was very difficult to popularise the concept of a shelter in the UAE.

“For most people, if you want a dog, you go to a pet shop and buy a puppy. But the problem is you don’t know what you’re getting there – healthy or sick, vaccinated or not – and you don’t know its character. We can match a very active cat with a family, or a lazy cat with a single person out at work all day.”

The most heartbreaking moments for the shelter’s team of 12 are when they receive animals that have been mistreated.

Most recently, a cat in Mohammed bin Zayed City was shot with a children’s toy arrow and taken by a Feline Friends animal charity volunteer to the shelter for treatment.

“Luck was on his side: the arrow didn’t penetrate any organs,” says head of Feline Friends, Martina Hakim. “The whole process at the shelter was smooth and efficient, with the cat’s well-being in mind.”

Then there was the dachshund whose back was burnt with an iron.

“She was found in the street in a really bad way,” says Dr Muller. “I was very close to deciding to put her down. And then I looked at this dog. It was a very nice dog – she looked at me as though to say ‘Please, at least try for me!’

“I decided instead to start treating her, using very strong painkillers. It took almost a year to heal but this dog was a fighter. We found her a new owner and she’s happy now.”

Dr Muller says some people are very willing to take on damaged pets.

“They give them so much love and I think it compensates those pets for everything they’ve suffered through. It’s beautiful to be able to give them a second chance.”


Gimme shelter

Aside from many charities that foster animals in private homes, there are also shelters funded by local government that help pets find “forever” homes and fund measures to control stray populations.

K9 Friends

This shelter, which was opened in 2009 in Jebel Ali, rescues abandoned dogs and has room for up to 125 dogs and 30 puppies. Contact: info@K9frends.com; www.k9friends.com

Sharjah Cat and Dog Shelter

This seven-year-old shelter, in the Ruhmania district of Sharjah, has eight suites housing up to six cats each. Accommodation for dogs and an off-leash dog park with an exercise area are under construction. Contact: cresswell.e@gmail.com; www.scads.ae

Ras Al Khaimah Animal Welfare Centre

This shelter, which moved in last year to the Al Hamra Al Jazira area of RAK , contains an air-conditioned canine accommodation building with 25 indoor and outdoor kennels, and a cattery with 22 rooms. Contact: info@rakawc.com; www.rakawc.com