Summer is traditionally a tough time of year for pets in the UAE as many animals are abandoned by their owners as residents leave for extended holidays. But this year as the global economic slowdown bites, more people than usual are leaving on a one-way ticket and many are not prepared to spend their remaining cash on transporting their animals home with them.
"People need to take responsibility for their pets and if that means them euthanising them rather than just leaving them to starve on the streets then they need to do so," says Lesley Muncey, the chairwoman of Dubai's Feline Friends. Muncey speaks from experience. The non-profit, volunteer organisation has seen a big increase in calls asking if they can re-home cats as their owners make a move back home. "We had 30 calls just in one day, which is a huge amount, asking us to take their cats in. That's just the people who are trying to re-home them, let alone all the ones that won't even bother. We have a lot of e-mails from people who have left the country saying they've left their cats in their villa, can we go around and catch them? Then there's the people who have just gone home and locked their villas and locked these animals in. Or stuffed them down drains. It's awful."
Cats, believe it or not, are the luckier ones. Along with dogs, they at least have voluntary human organisations in place to try to help strays and abandoned pets. Feline Friends, founded in 1991, has a sister branch in Abu Dhabi. K9 is a similar volunteer non-profit organisation for dogs, but there is no existing voluntary organisation or charity to rescue animals en masse. "We get calls about monkeys, snakes and birds - just because there isn't anywhere for anyone to call. I had one woman call me to tell me she was donating her turtles to us. The word donating made me laugh!" says Muncey. "We are desperate for a shelter, which would be for all animals. We're willing to build it, we just need the land." Each year, Feline Friends re-homes between 600 and 700 cats and pays for approximately 1,000 more to be neutered.
K9 is one step ahead. Earlier this month it moved into a brand new shelter which houses 110 dogs. The new premises were kindly donated by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, after the lease ran out on their old one. The bad news, though, for cats and dogs, is that both Feline Friends and K9 are completely full. It's been a busy year.
"We're trying our hardest but we're at our wits' end. We are desperate for foster homes, even if it's just for a month or two. There's so much to do and not enough people or time or money. We're turning so many people away - I had 25 cats in my home not so long ago. Originally we weren't set up as a re-home service but to help with the stray population and to get them healthy and adopted. But what we're seeing now is even pedigree cats are being dumped on the street," says Muncey.
Most callers to Feline Friends are unaware that they don't have a central shelter; they are a network of volunteers who offer their homes to kittens and cats while permanent owners can be found. In Dubai there are 100 such foster homes but it's nowhere near enough. When I go to visit Muncey in her home, there must be at least a dozen felines in residence, from month-old kittens upwards. The worrying difference this year is that they are all pedigrees, which can cost between Dh3,000 and Dh6,000 to buy. That these previously highly sought after cats are ending up on the same level as an alley cat offers an insight into how far the global downturn is affecting families here.
The well-known online noticeboard Dubizzle is (despite having notices reminding visitors they can rescue a cat or dog from one of the above organisations and that posters are not to sell animals on the site) full of people trying to re-home "much-loved" pets. Some adverts hint at their pets' fate if they are not successful: euthanasia or the streets. One Dubai resident who wished to remain nameless was desperately looking for a home for her dog. Due to a lack of garden at her new accommodation back home she couldn't take it with her, she said. "It's such a hard decision, and if no one takes the dog, we've no idea what to do."
"What we try and stress to people is that putting the pet out on the street isn't kinder than putting it down," explains Muncey. "It won't have a chance. These animals can't defend themselves. They can't cope in the extreme heat, can't find food or water - they die a slow, horrible death. And who knows what else people are releasing; birds or exotic pets as well as cats and dogs." Another family trying to re-home their dog on Dubizzle before heading home to the United States are at least more realistic about the possibility that their pet might not be adopted. "We'll take the dog with us if we have to but we had hoped to find a loving family in Dubai because of the long flight and not having the same space to run around in in the new place."
Katie O'Sullivan, who transports pets home through the company Snoopy Pets, has also seen a big increase in the amount of pets being sent home this summer. "Summer traditionally is always a busy time for us, but this year there has been more of an increase of pets leaving the country." However, it isn't a quick process to export one. "It takes seven months to do all the paperwork to transport a pet to somewhere like the UK under the pet passport scheme, so they bypass quarantine. For anyone whose situation has changed quickly this puts them in a difficult situation," says Katie. "They can either fly their pet on an airline carrier and put it in quarantine for six months or leave the animal here to complete the paperwork, but for people who are unprepared for the paperwork or the cost it's a hard choice."
The cost is a large factor to in these decisions. It costs Dh7,500 for an adult cat to go to the UK. Imagine trying to transport two large dogs in a hurry and you can understand why so many get left behind. "A lot of owners aren't prepared for the cost at short notice; they don't have the cash flow, so unfortunately there's an increase of pets being left, as well as pets being taken home, " explains Katie.
The increase in abandoned animals will also exacerbate the problem of large stray cat populations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In Dubai, the municipality aims to control the population, through a "trap, neuter, release" policy. However, of those trapped, 70 per cent are put down. Although it sounds excessive, it's a move supported by Feline Friends, as statistically, one breeding pair of cats can be responsible for up to a staggering 200,000 descendants in five years. It is these kinds of numbers that make the scale of the problem for volunteers so enormous.
Feline Friends advise callers who find strays on how to care for them but, overcrowded themselves, they suggest to callers, if they are unable to home or at least foster it for a time, to put it down. "We need the public to help us but when we're full we're full. We can't do any more. If you rescue a cat and can't look after it yourself then the only thing to do is to get a vet to euthanise it. There's no one else to help. It's awful. We have people begging and crying down the phone; you feel so heartless."
In addition to rescuing and re-homing, K9 and Feline Friends teach UAE schoolchildren about animal welfare and the responsibility involved in being a pet owner to try to stem future generations from literally putting their pets out with the rubbish. You can foster, adopt or sponsor a cat or dog through the organisations' websites, or donate your time or money. Regular adoption days are held after the summer also.
Visit www.felinefriendsdubai.com, www.felinefriendsuae.com and www.k9friends.comwww.snoopypets.com for more information.