This October, cat lovers from around the world will celebrate the Mau, a breed native to the Arabian Peninsula with a pedigree stretching back thousands of years. Recognised last year by the World Cat Federation (WCF) as a distinct breed, the Arabian Mau will appear at the WCF's first Supreme Show in Berlin.
But for all the adoration it is receiving on the world stage, back home in the UAE the Mau is the victim of an official programme of extermination, animal lovers claim. Here, the Mau is widely considered a stray or a feral desert cat, and activists say both Abu Dhabi and Dubai municipalities have aggressive campaigns to hunt and cull not only those living on city streets but also those roaming the desert.
Officials in neither emirate will confirm the extent of the cull, but one activist in Dubai fears that at least one variety of the breed is in danger of disappearing altogether from the UAE. "I used to see them everywhere, but now I never see the orange cats anymore," said Petra Mueller, founder and president of the Middle East Cat Society (Mecats), who has lived in Dubai for 14 years. "Nowhere in the world does this happen."
Ms Mueller looks after more than 80 cats that she has rescued from the streets of Dubai. After spending four years championing the Mau to qualify it for recognition by the WCF as a distinct breed, she is now fighting to raise awareness of the animal's plight in its own backyard. "With such a high budget to kill, imagine what we can do with that money to preserve the species," Ms Mueller said. "This is part of the country's heritage, and unless we act soon it will be too late to save it."
The cats are killed by lethal injection. "One veterinarian told me the cats from the desert are sometimes so big and so beautiful, so strong, that they keep screaming and fighting after they're captured," she said. "It's very difficult to kill them. They just don't want to die." Dubai Municipality would not disclose the number of cats it puts down every month. Abu Dhabi Municipality, which in February said it had transferred all contracts dealing with cats to the Department of Waste Management, failed to respond to repeated requests to interview the head of the department.
Both municipalities, however, have sought the advice of international humane societies which advocate the world standard for feline population management, called TNR, or trap, neuter and return. Endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), TNR involves trapping the cats, sterilising them and screening them for disease then, if they are deemed healthy, returning them to the place of capture to allow them to rejoin their colony. This programme has been adopted by cities in the US including New York and San Francisco, both of which have "no kill" policies.
Societies such as the ASPCA and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, an international alliance of animal welfare organisations, support humane methods of putting down cats deemed unhealthy or otherwise unsuitable to keep alive. Trevor Wheeler, who is affiliated with the World Society and has worked as an adviser to Dubai for seven years and Abu Dhabi for the past year, said he had advised both municipalities to follow the TNR approach.
Most municipalities with which he had worked in the developing world preferred the faster and easier approach of capture and kill, but the quick reduction in cat population created its own problems, he said. "The ideal way for population control is to sterilise and return the cats to their original turf," said Mr Wheeler. "When you catch and kill cats, you create a drastic reduction in population, but that backfires. Rats move in, then new cats from other turfs that are probably not sterilised also move in, and the cycle continues. Qatar learned from this in the 1990s before they embraced TNR."
Dubai officially adopted TNR seven years ago, and a spokesman for the municipality said it followed the advice of international consultants. But critics say both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been too heavy-handed, culling too many healthy cats instead of releasing them after treatment. "Out of every 30 cats I received, I was under orders to destroy at least 20, even if they were all healthy," said Dr Katrin Jahn, founder of the German Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi.
The approach caused her staff a "great deal of distress" so she stopped the work last summer. Part of the problem in the capital, she said, was that TNR was not implemented efficiently. Left to its own devices, a population of city cats will grow by about 25 per cent every year, creating what Dr Jahn called an unmanageable situation. "We need to be sterilising at least six or seven cats every day to make a difference in the population," said Dr Jahn. "The number of cats brought to us by the city contractors is very erratic, and that's too bad."
Since the beginning of the year, she said, her clinic had worked for the municipality only under the TNR programme and so far had sterilised 138 males and females, and had put down 47 cats. One activist in Abu Dhabi showed The National photographs that appeared to be of dozens of barrels filled with dead cats which, he said, had been recently killed by the city's sanctioned vets. The man, who declined to be named, claimed that the city paid Dh500 (US$136) for each cat put down, but only Dh80 for each one sterilised. Another source said the cost of putting down a cat was closer to Dh200, but The National was unable to verify these figures.
Campaigners say TNR is being undermined by campaigns run by the municipalities. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have run telephone hotlines where the public can call to have a colony of cats permanently removed, even if, the activists say, the animals have the V-shaped cut in their ears that marks them as sterilised and released back into the community, in keeping with the TNR protocol. In Dubai, the city periodically runs campaigns that offer rewards to anyone who reports the location of a cat colony. According to an unnamed official and one of the companies contracted to capture cats, the animals are quickly rounded up and destroyed.