x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Bird woman of Abu Dhabi

The director of Abu Dhabi's renowned falcon hospital, Dr Margit Muller, is a leader in the field of avian medicine.

Dr Margit Muller at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Dr Margit Muller at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. "Falcons are special," she says. "They are very individual characters."

If there was one moment in the illustrious career of Dr Margit Muller that encapsulates her passionate motivation for her work, it was the moment that a critically injured peregrine falcon looked straight into her eyes and begged for her help. The beautiful creature was close to death after it accidentally swooped under the wheels of a four-wheel drive while out in the desert on a hunting trip, but somehow it managed to raise its battered head and focus. Muller explains: "She was already lying down on her chest and was clearly in shock. When I examined her, I could see that she was very severely injured. From the skull to the lower back, there was no skin and I told the owner that her chances were slim.

"Then suddenly she looked at me and focused. I was looking in her eyes. It was like she was saying: 'Please help me.' It felt like she was sending a message and I knew she wanted to try and had the will to live." Anyone else pronouncing such a fanciful statement might be met with slight scepticism at the very least, but the clipped Germanic vowels and matter-of-fact delivery brook no argument. Even the briefest glance at the letters after Muller's name (MBA, MRCVS, D Vet Hom) testify to her expertise. This woman knows what she is talking about, and if she says the falcon communicated with her, then the creature did.

The incident happened about four years ago during the hunting season. The owner, an Emirati, rushed his treasured bird straight to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a unique public facility that opened in 1999 tucked away on a side road off the road to Sweihan. Few people who saw the falcon that day gave her much chance of survival. The injuries were profound, with the backbone laid bare and rubber from the tyres embedded in the feathers.

After that almost mystical exchange of looks and realising that the falcon, whose name was Baby, was prepared to fight for her life, Muller made a decision. "I said: 'OK we will take her to surgery immediately.' She was in surgery for two and a half hours. First, I cleaned the rubber from the tyre off her back and took X-rays. Amazingly there were no broken bones, although the damage was incredible. I started to suture what could be sutured and align the muscles. She didn't have an ear so I tried to reconstruct the ear.

"When we woke her up we put a nice bandage around her head and she stayed in intensive care as we had to tube-feed her. There were four more operations after that and she stayed with us for two months. I told the owner not to come and visit her as it would have been too exciting for her," she remembers with a smile. Unbelievably and thanks to the tender ministrations of the hospital's dedicated staff, the falcon survived. The day that her owner came to collect her was another emotional milestone. "When we finally allowed him to see her, he couldn't believe it. He was very close to tears. Some time later he told me that he had taken her hunting and she was as good as new, possibly even better than she had been before. I even managed to reconstruct her ear and she became 100 per cent OK. The smile on her owner's face was the best reward for the hard work that her recovery required. It made it all worthwhile."

Abu Dhabi's very own bird woman has been the director of the hospital since 2001. Last year her efforts were rewarded when she was honoured at the fourth annual Abu Dhabi Awards, receiving one of the coveted trophies from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The importance of the falcon in UAE culture cannot be underestimated, and not only as the national symbol. Says Muller: "It is such an integral part of the Bedouin culture. In former times they used them to hunt meat for the family. In fact it helped the Bedouin family to survive. Falcons are like children to them, very much a part of the family. Here at the hospital we are dealing with the children of the Bedouin. They come here every day to visit them just as they would if the falcons were real children. They say: 'Please do everything for her, she's my baby.'"

Muller, who grew up in Weissenhorn, Bavaria, surrounded by animals, fell in love with falcons and falconry when she was training to be a vet and did a two-month internship in Dubai at a private clinic. Initially she trained as a doctor, but after a year studying medicine at Ulm University in Germany she transferred to the University of Munich to study veterinary medicine, continuing her studies at the University of Nantes in France.

"As a child I had a rabbit and budgerigars, a tortoise and a dog but never a falcon. I needed animals like I need the air to breathe. I was always bringing sick frogs home and I tried to make them better. My mother went quite mad with it. My parents always believed that it was important to be connected to nature and animals. Once you got good connections with animals you also developed a social ability.

"I was always particularly interested in birds. The first time I saw a falcon was in the zoo in Germany, but I never owned one until now. Falcons are special; they are not like cats and dogs. They are very individual characters. They are so proud and such majestic birds, but on the other hand they are very sensitive." At her home in Abu Dhabi, she keeps her own five-year-old black gyr pedigree falcon called Alia.

Her extensive studies have made her one of the premier experts in the field of avian medicine. She has a PhD in veterinary medicine (her thesis was on foot disease in falcons) from the University of Munich, an MBA from Strathclyde University in Glasgow and a diploma in veterinary homoeopathy, something she believes goes hand in hand with more traditional forms of healing. She also specialised in veterinary dentistry and was trained in surgical techniques and procedures. She laughs that her small, neat hands are perfect for intricate surgical work on birds.

Over the years she has written or contributed to more than 30 publications and given presentations at conferences all over the world. Along the way she identified a new disease, enterocytozoon bieneusi infection, which is caused by spore-forming parasites. Says Muller: "It has never been found before and it was even unknown that falcons might be susceptible. The interesting point was that the strain detected in falcons is identical to that in humans."

During her internship in Dubai she noticed that many falcons had problems with their feet. She made this the subject of her PhD thesis. "Even when we did surgery they came back with the same problem. In some species it's a metabolic problem which can be helped with exercise and massage. We tell owners and falconers to check the feet daily." It was observations such as this that encouraged her to provide extensive educational programmes at the Abu Dhabi hospital, concentrating on hygiene and preventive medicine. Many of the more than 31,000 birds treated since the hospital opened come in simply for check-ups, especially at the beginning of the hunting season or when someone is considering buying a falcon and wants to know that it is sound.

Birds are brought in for the avian equivalent of manicures and pedicures, the coping of the talons and beaks, performed under mild anaesthetic so that the bird does not feel it or indeed make its objections known to the surgeon. Muller explains that overgrown beaks lead to eating problems and talons need to be kept short to prevent a falcon from injuring itself. This week, her 450-page Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine will be published by Nova. It is likely to become the definitive reference book on the subject. "Through all these years that I have been working, I have seen in a lot of cases that understanding is lacking. Basic hygiene is lacking, for example and first aid is poor."

Muller makes the point that falconry is not confined to the wealthy, which is why the UAE's first public hospital was opened nine years ago, affiliated to the Environment Agency, to provide the best possible care for falcons and other birds to rich and poor alike. "We are educating falconers to bring their birds in early where it might be possible to treat them with tablets rather than waiting for a condition to worsen. We cater for all birds, from those belonging to the royal family to the poorest family. Every falcon deserves the best treatment. We have had some really strong birds in here belonging to the Sheikhs and equally to ordinary people."

The hospital can justifiably claim to be the leading centre for falcon medicine worldwide. Feathered patients come from all over the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. "One bird came to us from Qatar with a broken leg. It took them two weeks to get the paperwork through and by the time she arrived, the leg had healed but in a bad position. I had to break it a gain and align it. She stayed for four weeks and healed beautifully," says Muller.

"The world of falcons is a small one. If you are good with falcons, you develop a reputation. To be honest, it was the best decision of my life. For me the hospital is the perfect place to work. I moved my world to be here. I love living here because the people welcomed me with open arms. The hospital and the administration has two purposes, first to help falcons and falconers, and second to spread a love of falconry," she says.

The hospital is also the referral laboratory for bird flu tests for Abu Dhabi and has recently been reapproved for the second time. "We have written the plans for action in the case of avian influenza but thankfully so far haven't had a case yet." With the beginning of the hunting season, staff are particularly busy. In one waiting area, about 20 birds of varying sizes and colours are lined up in neat rows waiting to be examined. It is very quiet as the birds are all hooded, a magnificent but somewhat surreal sight.

Currently, there are 120 patients in the hospital. Some are recovering from surgery or exploratory tests and others are being treated for parasitic, fungal and bacterial infections. This year, the hospital has won three prestigious awards, including the Golden Europe Award for Quality & Commercial Prestige and the 34th International Award for Tourist, Hotel and Catering Industry as well as Muller's Abu Dhabi Award.

"Awards mean a great deal to us because they help raise the profile of the hospital. The Abu Dhabi Award has a special place in my heart. It's a unique award because the people initiate the nominations. It's very important to show the community that an individual can make a change to society. If you believe in something, even if you think it might be something small, it is definitely worth pursuing."