A new government bid to get tough on UAE residents who abandon their pets has been welcomed – but supporters say more work needs to be done to educate offenders and tackle the rising stray animal population.
Owners who dump their pets will face fines or even jail under strict new regulations announced by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment last week.
Animal lovers believe the legislation solves "part of the problem" – but controlling the number of stray animals roaming the country's streets remains a concern.
Trap, neuter and release programmes provided by community volunteers to reduce feral cat populations have come under threat from changes to the way charities operate.
Unregistered and unlicensed groups are no longer allowed to receive donations or public funding, so many have suspended programmes until all paperwork is in place.
So far this year, more than 6,500 cats have been taken off the streets of Abu Dhabi as part of the TNR initiative operated by Tadweer, the emirate's waste management authority. This is a sharp rise on the 3,206 captured in 2016.
The latest figures prompted calls for a round-the-clock neutering campaign.
Experts estimate that there are about 100,000 stray cats in the UAE capital alone.
"This solves part of the problem, but what are we to do to strays?" wrote Mai Pastor on The National's Facebook page.
“We are prohibited to feed them, but it's expensive to care and support multiple pets.”
Since April, legislation to oversee voluntary work and community groups made it illegal to call for, promote and collect donations online without proper permission and licensing.
Anyone found breaking the law faces a prison term of up to three years, or a fine of between Dh250,000 and Dh500,000. Several volunteer groups scaled back their work until they obtain the correct registration documents.
Setting up a charity can be costly. Expatriates need to apply to the Community Development Authority (CDA) through their respective embassy or consulate. Once approved, volunteers must carry ID cards at all times, and clearly specify the category and nature of the volunteering activity.
Comprehensive training must be given to volunteers where required, and groups must maintain a record of volunteers' names, personal information, the nature of work and the hours they have worked.
All information must be registered with the CDA and insurance provided to cover against injuries.
Kristine Demchuk welcomed the new laws, but said it would be difficult to prosecute those who have dumped their pets and then left the country.
“This is great, but the government should also make the process easier to take our pets back home with us,” said Elizabeta Dejan Bozinovski.
“It is so complicated and difficult to do that at the moment.”
Louise Phillips is calling for tougher penalties on rogue pet shop owners.
“They should jail those pet shop owners, puppy farmers and all animal cruelty should be punishable by law in all its forms,” she said, also on Facebook.
One of nine new articles outlining the responsibilities of animal owners announced by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment said animals should not be abandoned under any circumstances.
Sarah Bartlett, a former RSPCA officer and now a spokeswoman for Animal Action UAE said the new regulations were a positive step.
“Enforcement has previously been an issue, but these changes show how seriously that is now being taken,” she said.
“We want to support this in any way possible, but there will be challenges ahead. To penalise someone, they need to be traceable to the animal.
“In my time here I’ve seen a huge number of dumped animals, much more than in other countries where I have worked.
“Abandoned animals are rarely microchipped, so their owners can be almost impossible to find.”
Volunteer-run neutering programmes and municipality-supported schemes have been in full force across the country for several years.
A particular focus has been on the stray cat population on Abu Dhabi's Lulu Island, a place which has become a dumping ground for hundreds of felines.
“There is no official data on abandonment cases, but we know they are significant,” said Ms Bartlett, who has lived in the UAE for 13 years.
“People need to consider if they can afford an animal and what they will do with it when they go on holiday or leave the country for good.
“A solution must be part legislation based, and partly around community education – with more focus on adoption than buying from pet shops.
“We would love to work more closely with the government to find a solution to these issues. As volunteers, we have very limited funds.”