Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

UAE students’ first-hand experience with an animal shelter

A school trip to an animal shelter in Ras Al Khaimah was an eye-opener for a group of teenage girls and, for many, a first hands-on encounter with dogs and cats. So what did the girls learn? That ‘cats don’t like to be lonely, they’re friendly, they need friends’. Anna Zacharias reports
Fatima Mohammad and Amna Hassan hold a cat at the RAK Animal Welfare Center. It was Fatima’s first time stroking a cat. Razan Alzayani / The National
Fatima Mohammad and Amna Hassan hold a cat at the RAK Animal Welfare Center. It was Fatima’s first time stroking a cat. Razan Alzayani / The National

When Fatima met Vinny, it was love at first sight. The Arabian Mau snuggled into her lap purring loudly. “I didn’t know that cats were very loving,” said the 15-year-old schoolgirl. “I was very scared of cats and dogs but this is very cute.”

Until her visit to the Ras Al Khaimah Animal Welfare Centre, Fatima Al Amri had never so much as touched a cat. The school’s visit was part of the centre’s outreach programme to introduce what to many of us are familiar household pets to young people who often see them in a very different light.

While households in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are no strangers to well-loved, well-kept pets, it can be a different story in the Northern Emirates, where people may feed strays, but their involvement with animals seldom extends to naming them or even taking them to a vet.

It is an unfortunate reality that some dogs in RAK are kept for the lucrative, but illegal, sport of dog fighting. Stray cats are routinely tortured, or sometimes deliberately run over by drivers. These are problems not unique to the Northern Emirates, but they are much more likely to be prevalent when people are not raised with animals and find it difficult to appreciate their suffering.

“A lot of Emiratis don’t accept the idea of having pets, mainly dogs, because in Islam we believe that dogs are not clean,” said Mahra Al Shamsi, 27, who had brought the group of grade 10 students to the centre. An English teacher at the Hamham Secondary School for Girls, a school south of Ras Al Khaimah city, she said: “I don’t think they have this kind of rapport with animals. They don’t build relationships.”

Ms Al Shamsi is an endurance horse racer for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid’s stables and has volunteered at the centre since 2010, coordinating the outreach programme in rural and urban Ras Al Khaimah communities.

Animal rights are absent from the public-school curriculum, she said. “There is one unit about animals that nobody loves, such as sharks and cockroaches. It just talks about them in a very scientific way.”

Dogs are taboo, particularly because they are often considered to be ritually unclean.

Ms Al Shamsi, who has a pet cat and a horse named Miracle, wants her pupils to learn respect, responsibility and compassion from animals. A school trip around the centre is the first step to dispelling fear, she hopes.

After an initial briefing, the girls said they were fearless. Then Kira, a Rottweiler puppy, scuttled into the room, four months old and five kilograms with a stubby wagging tail. The girls retreated into a corner.

“It’s just kisses,” said Ellen Quanjer, the Dutch-born shelter manager, when his pink tongue slipped out.

Minutes later, the girls were peering into a basket of three-week old puppies, each no larger than a man’s hand.

“I noticed some of them were pretty scared, even of the puppies, but I think it was their first time and their first experience, or their second or third experience,” Ms Al Shamsi says. “It takes time to get used to animals.”

It took Mischo, a Persian cat, to dispel their fear. The pupils crowded around for a chance to stroke his long white fur. “Cats don’t like to be lonely,” said Fatima, when asked about the biggest lesson of the visit. “They’re friendly. They need friends.”

It is not just Ms Al Shamsi’s students who are shy. When Ms Quanjer introduced her gentle boxer, Tresco, to a group of male college students recently, they wanted to pose for photos, but only on condition that a handler stood between them and the dog.

“We see that with most groups, regardless of their background, they’re all a little bit nervous and by the end of the hour most have at least tried to touch an animal,” says Ms Quanjer, who has worked as general manager since 2011.

“When we educate people now we feel that for the generations to come we can really change things, whereas now we’re just dealing with the current situation. We want things to be different in five or 10 years from now,” she says.

Ignorance about animals can lead to other welfare problems. Feral cats tend to breed very quickly, Ms Quanjer says. And queens can produce between two and three litters a year.

“It’s a never-ending problem and we try to tackle the problem at the source and the source is what people do with their pets.”

And so another key component of the outreach programme is a mobile clinic, a tent that tours neighbourhoods and towns on a monthly basis from October to April. Pet owners receive free consultation and can vaccinate, deworm, de-flea and have their pet neutered for just Dh25. Microchipping, which means they can be identified if lost or injured, costs another Dh25.

When the clinic first opened, workers found people had an aggressive attitude to animals, boasting that they liked to kick cats. Now the volunteers are known and greeted by all, from low-income workers surrounded by semi-feral street cats to curious quad-biking teenagers.

Although originally intended for cats and dogs, all types of animals receive treatment at the travelling tent: a falcon with a chest wound, a boy’s lethargic pet turtle, tick-riddled dachshunds, once-proud Persian cats with matted fur, pigeons and talkative cockatoos. Farmers have asked to bring their goats. On their January visit to Al Rams, a man who wanted the sex of his birds checked found, to his dismay, that he owned four female lovebirds.

Dog fighters have also come forward. “We started having people come up to the mobile clinics and say ‘I have 16 dogs and I do dog fighting and I earn a good living’,” Ms Quanjer said. At first she refused to work with them. “That doesn’t work because you’re not solving anything. By helping them we’re trying to slowly, slowly talk to them.”

The clinic receives suspected dogfight victims several times a month. “We have clients in the dog clinic who we know or suspect are active in dog fighting,” Ms Quanjer says. “People are not shouting it around, but we think it must be quite widespread.”

During the school visit, the pupils met Louise, a gentle black Saluki-cross rescued from a house with three other small dogs. Shelter workers believe they were to be used as bait in dog fighting.

The centre arranges for large dogs at risk of being used for fighting to be adopted by owners abroad. It also liaises with the Arabian Saluki Centre of Canada to find new homes for Saluki crosses, unwanted in the UAE because they are not pedigree, but coveted overseas. Dogs have also been sent to Germany, the Netherlands, Oman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America through fund-raising.

The shelter’s annual budget is twice what it brings in through fundraising, sales of pet products and treatment fees, which are usually subsidised. However its costs are subsidised by the RAK government, under the patronage of Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr, the Ruler of RAK.

The only custom-built shelter in RAK, Fujairah and Umm Al Qaiwain, the centre has found homes for about 700 dogs and cats since it opened in 2010. “I think if you have a map of the world, on every continent you’ll have dogs and cats from Ras Al Khaimah,” Ms Quanjer says.

“You can’t change the world but we’re in a very fortunate position here in Ras Al Khaimah where our Ruler really is supportive,” Ms Quanjer says. “I think a small change is a big change. We have the luxury in Ras Al Khaimah that you can try to change things. You can pick up the phone and call us.”