x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Summer brings rise in abandoned pets

Animal advocates across the emirate are struggling to find homes for the hundreds of pets abandoned as summer nears.

Shazia Khan had heard stories of owners abandoning unwanted pets along the busy road she travels each day when dropping off her children at school in Al Ain.

But still, when she saw a woman stop her car on the side of the road and dump a puppy in the bushes, she could not believe her eyes.

"At first, I thought maybe she was just dropping something on the pavement," said Mrs Khan.

"But when we saw what it was, we had to go back and pick her up."

The puppy, a four- to six-week-old mixed breed that Mrs Khan named Sugar ("because she's so sweet") was terrified but healthy and clean.

She is still too young to be vaccinated but Mrs Khan said she is "very active, very playful and very happy".

"I am an animal lover and my own two dogs are rescue dogs, so I don't understand how someone could do this."

Sugar's plight is all too common in Abu Dhabi emirate, animal experts said, especially as the summer months approach and many expatriates return to their home countries, leaving their pets behind.

"People come in and they want to adopt a cat or dog because it's cute and fluffy. They may not realise it's a commitment," said Dr Margit Muller, director of the Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter, the only authorised shelter in the emirate.

It takes in surrendered and abandoned pets from all over the emirate, vaccinates and microchips them and then puts them up for adoption.

"There is no reason to abandon a pet, because it can be arranged [for the pet] to go with you or someone here can take care of it. People have to understand the responsibility before they adopt," said Dr Muller.

In Al Ain, volunteers at Animal Welfare Al Ain help residents who report stray or abandoned animals to find them foster homes but they do not have facilities of their own. The group's work focuses on educating pet shop workers on how to properly care for animals and raising awareness about trap-neuter-return programmes for feral cats.

Lesley Taylor, the secretary at Animal Welfare Al Ain, said a lack of awareness was the single biggest factor contributing to the rise in animal abandonments.

"It's a large problem and it's probably going to take decades to improve," said Ms Taylor. "People do not know the basics. Their hearts are in the right places but it is an education thing."

Concerned residents who spot strays can report them to the municipality or the government-run animal shelter in the capital but the bulk of the problem is handled by volunteer groups and individuals.

Animal Action in Abu Dhabi places stray and abandoned dogs with new owners, while an extensive network of foster families across the country temporarily cares for the pets until "forever homes" can be located.

"It's not always easy and in the summer it can be more difficult because no one is around," said Natalie Stones, who runs Animal Action with her sister, Melanie.

They have organised an adoption event on May 18 and are taking applications for potential adoptive families, who must pledge not to leave their pets behind when they return to their home countries.

A UAE federal law allows for a fine of up to Dh20,000 for the mistreatment of animals but experts said it was rarely enforced.

And many people may not be aware all of the options available.

"In some warped way, maybe the person who left the puppy thinks it's a good place to leave them, on the side of the busy street, because a kind person might see her and pick her up," Ms Taylor said.

A shortage of foster homes makes the problem worse, and volunteers say local authorities do not always respond to the calls they receive about stray or in-need animals.

"In Al Ain, there is no proper place to bring your animal, so people just throw them out," Mrs Khan said.

At least Sugar's story looks likely to have a happy ending. Mrs Khan said that she expects a quick adoption - but hundreds of other animals are still waiting for new homes.

"It's a long, slow process but I hope we can see attitudes change soon," Ms Taylor said.

jthomas@thenational.ae