Air kitty: How UAE cat rescuers are rehoming hundreds of animals abroad
Street cats in the Emirates have been sent as far as the US, Germany, Switzerland, Russia and the Netherlands – at a cost of thousands a time
Lucy, a beautiful white cat with fluffy fur and almond-coloured eyes, lives a contented life in Hollister, California.
She is doted on by her owner, Melissa Casillas, and enjoys eating her favourite food, tuna, twice a day.
“She purrs, she cuddles, she grooms herself,” said Mrs Casillas, 42, a director at a community college. "She plays with toy mice, absolutely a love.”
Turn the clock back less than six months, however, and Lucy's situation could not have been more different.
Attempting to survive on the streets of Sharjah in the UAE, she was emaciated, had terrible wounds on each side of her neck and had filthy, matted fur. She was barely recognisable as a domesticated cat.
There were signs, however, that Lucy had been groomed not too long before, suggesting that she had been abandoned relatively recently.
Fortunately, she was picked up from the streets by a kind-hearted rescuer and given veterinary treatment before an owner was found for her in the United States, where she was flown a few months ago.
Kept indoors because of an earlier injury to her brainstem that affects her co-ordination, she is otherwise healthy and happy.
Many other cats have, like Lucy, found happy homes far from the Middle East. Each month multiple animals are flown to the US, Canada and European countries such as Britain and Germany.
The numbers appear to be increasing, with rescuers estimating that hundreds of UAE cats are adopted overseas each year, thanks to groups and individuals who find homes and arrange transport.
One of the UAE's most active cat rescuers is Fawaz Kanaan, 38, an events organiser who lives in Dubai.
He has been feeding strays for more than 15 years and rescuing them since 2010, with Lucy one of the cats he saved. Many cats adopted overseas have special needs, according to Mr Kanaan.
“It's the cats that are really difficult to rehome - the three-legged cats, blind cats, the ones that cannot walk,” he said.
Mr Kanaan, who started the Save Dubai Stray Cats Facebook group that now has more than 5,000 members has organised the overseas adoption of a dozen cats in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and The Netherlands, among other places. He said abandonments was increasing because of uncertain economic conditions.
“Many people, if they have three or four cats, they're just throwing them out,” he said. “It's still increasing daily.
“Most of the dumped cats are breeds. Even with the healthy ones, it's difficult to find homes.
“Imagine the sick ones and the ones with special needs - it makes it more difficult. But many individuals here are doing their best to arrange adoptions.”
Cat rescuers would like Dubai to introduce a trap-neuter-return or trap-neuter-release (TNR) programme similar to the one running in Abu Dhabi.
The number of cats the UAE capital neutered last year doubled to more than 6,500, but even so, the city is thought to have about 100,000 stray cats and Dubai even more.
Rescuers hope that a recent announcement making abandoning an animal a criminal offence with a possible jail term could reduce the number of cats dumped. Many are thrown out by departing expatriates.
“It's indeed a positive step in the right direction, and we will have to support this as a community to raise further awareness and educate people,” said Samah El Manzalawy, of Adopt a Friend UAE, a group of volunteers who rehome cats and dogs.
“It's a community effort which is endorsed and led by the ministry.”
Cat rescuers use several ways to find overseas adopters. Adopt a Friend UAE makes use of contacts and shares details of animals on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
Even when adopters can be found, the costs of relocation have to be paid for and sending animals abroad is not cheap.
Pre-departure paperwork – a health certificate, pet passport and vaccinations – can push the total up to as much as Dh3,500.
“It is not easy. People in Europe could adopt a similar cat from a shelter at a much lower cost,” said Ms El Manzalawy.
“Some people are behind the cause and are happy to support and pay the relocation cost, and some think it's a lot.
“If it's a really great home, then we look at ways and means to get it done. A lot of times we do pay the difference.”
Commonly, rescuers in the UAE have to cover part or all of the cost while adhering to the country's restrictions on fund-raising. Garage sales are one important way of raising funds.
There are also numerous overseas residents who organise adoptions in their home countries, typically in co-ordination with rescuers in the UAE.
The UK-based DXB Desert Rescues, for example, organises the rehoming of UAE-based cats in the UK, other parts of Europe, and North America, as well as the UAE.
Former Abu Dhabi resident, Andreas Rosener, a 53-year-old oil and gas industry engineer, is one of three volunteers in Germany who run the Bin Kitty Collective Germany, which rehomes cats to Germany.
Last year alone they rehomed more than 130 cats from the UAE. Since it was founded about five years ago, the group has rehomed about 450 cats and 20 or so dogs - the vast majority to Germany, with others going to Austria and Switzerland.
“There's a lot of cats and not enough people there to adopt a cat,” said Mr Rosener, who himself has six cats from the UAE.
“Most people like the fluffy ones, the Persians, the beautiful ones. The average Arabian Mau is nothing people find particularly beautiful. It's your average street cat. In Europe, it's a special breed.”
The group has a German-language website through which potential adopters get in touch, with the group co-ordinating with rescuers and fosters in the UAE who are looking for homes for cats they have taken in. They cover much of the transport cost.
Each month the group might have cats coming over on about half a dozen flights, co-ordinating with “flight buddies” – people taking a particular flight in any case – who assist with transportation and the handover of the cat to its new owner.
“We have a flood of cats that's just non-stop,” said Mr Rosener.
“In fact, we unfortunately have to decline quite a lot of requests from people who are asking us to help with rehoming because our waiting list is so long.”
Updated: January 22, 2019 11:03 AM