x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Volunteers step in when summer overwhelms animal rescue agencies

Licenced animal welfare facilities in the UAE are overburdened, forcing unfunded, under-staffed volunteer organisations to frequently take on more than they can handle.

The kennels of the Dubai-based, licenced animal shelter, K9 Friends, are already full; in fact, the organisation has a waiting list of 41 animals waiting for a spot in its facilities. Sammy Dallal / The National
The kennels of the Dubai-based, licenced animal shelter, K9 Friends, are already full; in fact, the organisation has a waiting list of 41 animals waiting for a spot in its facilities. Sammy Dallal / The National

Licenced animal welfare facilities in the UAE are overburdened, especially in the summer, forcing unfunded, under-staffed volunteer organisations to frequently take on more than they can handle.

Melanie Stones switches her mobile phone to silent.

She is regularly inundated with calls from residents with news of pets in need. Stones, who runs Animal Action, a volunteer organisation in Abu Dhabi that finds homes for stray and abandoned animals, admits she struggles to keep up with demand.

The 25-year-old Briton, who has lived in the UAE for 21 years, tells of one man who threw his Persian cat on the street while his girlfriend was away and complained the pet was bothering him for food. He wanted Animal Action to take it away until his girlfriend returned.

There is also the sad tale of Scott, a stray dog the group found in Abu Dhabi's Mussafah area with a rope imbedded in his neck.

Stones believes the animal was tied up as a puppy but as he grew, the rope cut into his skin, leaving a gaping wound and effectively strangling him; Scott coughed constantly, had bulging eyes and struggled to run because of difficulty breathing.

Scott is now in a foster home and on the road to recovery, but his story is one of thousands that drive ordinary residents like Stones to give their time and money to help animals in need.

Animal Action is not a licenced organisation. It is a Facebook group run by volunteers but, because of the sheer volume of abandoned animals it comes across, it has become a full-time job for Stones, who set it up in 2010 after she began finding homes for strays via social network sites. The group has almost 2,500 Facebook likes.

Stones is a visual arts graduate, but she works 10 hours a day saving animals, relying on her parents and selling paintings to support herself.

"People think it's a shelter and, even at 2am, they text and phone non-stop," she explains. "But I'm just one person."

Stones is not alone in her commitment to animal welfare. More and more volunteer organisations are springing up across the UAE as animal lovers rally to rescue abandoned pets - an issue that becomes heightened during the summer months.

“People traditionally leave in the summer and they don’t want to take their pets with them. Then you have the usual people dumping their pets on top of that,” explains Stones.

“In the past it would have been hard to find support, but now there are new groups starting all the time; it’s just animal lovers who want to help.”

Among them is Friends for Animals, an organisation set up in 2008 by Spaniard Montserrat Martin, who has lived in the UAE for 12 years and once ran a garment factory in Ajman.

Her decision to dedicate all her energy to animals came after finding an injured dog lying on the side of the road in Ajman. The animal had been hit by a car and, unable to walk, had remained there for four months surviving on scraps of food and water given to him by workers.

Martin found a home for the injured dog. Over time, she found herself increasingly immersed in animal welfare, even selling one of her own properties in Dubai in 2010 to finance her organisation.

“It is completely funded by me. We get up to 40 emails a day and work 16 hours, seven days a week; our only thing in life is animals,” she explains.

“It’s not a question of ‘this is not my country so I won’t do it’. It is the community’s responsibility because it is the community that throws them on the streets and leave them starving to death.”

Both Martin and Stones say their work is needed because government-run institutions cannot cope with the sheer number of stray animals.

In Dubai, the Dubai Municipality Veterinary Clinic acts as a pound, taking in strays or lost pets. Animals are held for eight days and, while some find homes through a weekly auction (the highest bidder takes the animal), many are euthanised because of limited space.

But the pound also reaches out to volunteer organisations.

“When we are told by the municipality that an animal is going to be put to sleep, we put the call out to the network to see if someone can help,” says Martin. “We collaborate with them. We have taken a lot of their dogs. But some of them are not rehomeable because they have lived on the streets for two or three generations. It would be silly to give these dogs to a home because they are feral.”

Like all the volunteer organisations, Friends of Animals does not make a profit and relies on the generosity of the community and its volunteers.

“Through one family last year, we managed to rehome 12 dogs, so imagine if you had 1,000 reliable families willing to foster on a regular basis; we are talking about 12,000 animals a year,” says Martin.

In Abu Dhabi, the situation has been eased by a government-funded shelter near Al Shamkha that opened in 2010. Managed by the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and under the guidance of its director, Dr Margit Muller, the shelter can house 200 dogs and 150 cats.

With a no-kill policy, it only euthanises animals with untreatable diseases. It neuters, microchips and vaccinates all other strays and puts them up for adoption.

“The turnover of adoptions is very high,” says Dr Muller. “At the end of July, our adoptions have increased by 100 per cent compared with the same month last year, and that’s a positive thing. There is a change in the mindset happening.”

While Dr Muller believes the system is working, volunteer animal organisations say they are still overrun.

“I was close to a meltdown about two weeks ago,” says Stones. “There were just too many. I hated my phone; hated my laptop – it was non-stop.”

Even established, licenced organisations, such as Dubai-based K9 Friends – a volunteer-run shelter for dogs that launched in 1987 – say they are struggling to cope.

“We are full, with a waiting list of 41,” says Jackie Ratcliffe, the organisation’s chairperson.

While K9 was provided with land and purpose-built kennels to house the dogs as well as an education centre by the Dubai government in 2009, they still need to maintain their own operating costs.

“We are like every animal organisation here – we are all volunteers and not paid,” explains Ratcliffe, who has lived in the UAE for 23 years. She will rely solely on her husband’s income as a salesman this year after giving up a part-time job as a teacher to devote more time to K9 Friends.

And because the group has a licence, it can open a bank account and receive donations directly into the account. Unlicenced organisations rely on donations to veterinary clinics to cover bills.

The Arabian Saluki Centre of Dubai (ASCOD), a non-profit organisation that rescues and finds homes for salukis and other needy animals, would also like to operate as an official, licenced organisation.

First set up by Emirati Mohammed Al Darwish in 2008 as a networking group for saluki owners to try to ensure saluki races were safe, the group has evolved into a rescue group after Al Darwish joined forces with Russian animal lover Yelena Swain.

The duo now has a team of volunteers who help them rescue salukis – a traditional Arabian hunting dog – even flying some of the dogs overseas to new homes in Europe.

While Al Darwish, 28, works as an engineer at a petrochemical plant in Al Ruwais, returning to his home in Dubai on the weekend to help out, Swain commits all of her time to ASCOD – which has rescued more than 100 animals to date – and has put her career on hold.

“My husband supports me, but he wants me to go back to work. With all these horror stories of dogs in need, this is my priority” says Swain, 42, who has lived in the UAE for 16 years.

“Of course, we want to turn it into an official rescue organisation. At the moment, I can only raise about US$600 [Dh2,203] from selling at flea markets, and to take a saluki out of the municipality costs Dh1,000.”

But obtaining a licence is not straightforward.

“The municipality has told me that when the documentation is right, they will stand up and approach us,” says Al Darwish. “You don’t get financial support, but you are given land and premises and a special licence for animals.

“But it will take a long time to get a licence and we need an income that can at least cover the costs. Once the licence is acquired it will be easier to approach people because they know where the money is going. Now it is difficult to acquire people’s trust.”

And money is not the only problem. A shortage of foster homes means many of the organisations’ networks cross over and the groups don’t always agree with how others operate.

ASCOD’s Swain says: “Some organisations do more harm than good. They over-rescue and take more dogs than they can handle. There are so many dogs that need to be helped but you can’t save all of them – this is the bitter truth. People are afraid to respond to a call for fostering because they end up being dumped with a dog forever.”

So what is the solution?

While Al Darwish thinks the answer is unifying the work of the different groups and the government, others think more shelters are needed.

But K9 Friends’ Jackie Ratcliffe says more shelters are not the answer.

“We need more education and to stop people breeding or buying dogs. All organisations will tell you they are overstretched, but the more shelters you have, the more people will just take on a dog and chuck it out, so that doesn’t actually solve the problem – it’s like a Band-Aid.”

Ratcliffe adds that having a centralised microchip database would help as different organisations have different databases, making it hard to track down owners of lost or abandoned animals.

The groups also agree that animal protection laws – that can see abusers fined up to Dh20,000 – need to be strengthened and enforced.

But until that all-encompassing solution can be found, the army of volunteer organisations are determined to carry on their work, no matter what the cost.

“I sold all my Chanel bags; they don’t matter to me,” says Swain. “I cannot look into the eyes of a saluki and betray her, so every time I need to raise money, something of mine goes. I don’t regret it.”

But Martin knows her quest is not sustainable in the long-term.

“I don’t know how long I can keep this up. It’s not even the money. I didn’t go and study a degree in fine art and then say ‘one day I will be the animal lady’. I have no holidays or weekends and am 45 now. At some point I have to start thinking about myself.”

arayer@thenational.ae