Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

The long read: the UAE's street cat epidemic

Tens of thousands of stray cats are roaming the streets of the UAE and a small army of caring volunteers are calling for more support to tackle a major animal welfare concern

Emma Button gives vital shelter to about 50 cats as she is unable to turn away a feline in need. Antonie Robertson/The National
Emma Button gives vital shelter to about 50 cats as she is unable to turn away a feline in need. Antonie Robertson/The National

The UAE has a glaring, and growing, problem with stray cats.

Their numbers are huge, and escalating rapidly, with an estimated 100,000 cats living on the streets in Abu Dhabi alone and tens of thousands more in Dubai.

One cat typically has two to three litters each year of one to eight kittens each, according to veterinary experts.

That equates to 100 kittens in her lifetime and an astounding 420,000 kittens for her generation, according to the website, calculate-this.

Those stark numbers lay bare the vital need to address the UAE's street cat epidemic.

An army of caring animal lovers have stepped up to provide shelter to scores of stray cats, but they say more needs to be done to tackle the issue.

A tale of two cities: Dubai urged to follow Abu Dhabi's lead

Many rescuers in Dubai are desperately hoping the city follows the lead of Abu Dhabi, which rolled out a trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme in 2007 in an effort to limit the population that had been growing out of control.

The theory behind TNR, a policy supported by international charities such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has praised Abu Dhabi’s programme, is to trap feral cats, spay or neuter them and release them back into the environment they came from.

Although a trap, neuter and release policy was floated in Dubai last year, it is yet to be introduced, leaving the population to continue to spiral further out of control.

The benefits of TNR can be seen in Abu Dhabi.

Last year more than 6,500 cats were taken off the streets of the capital as part of the TNR initiative operated by Tadweer, the emirate's waste management authority. The number was a sharp rise on the 3,206 captured in 2016.

Dr Susan Aylott set up Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi to improve the lives of animals in the capital. Reem Mohammed/The National
Dr Susan Aylott set up Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi to improve the lives of animals in the capital. Reem Mohammed/The National

“If you do a TNR programme comprehensively, you do notice a decline in the population and what we should be achieving is a decline in about 66 per cent in 11 years,” said Dr Susan Aylott, who established and runs Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi.

“We have no data from 11 years ago so we don’t know what the decline has been since then. It is fantastic that the government has adopted this programme. It is of great benefit to the cat population, but we all have to be on the same page.”

She said the problem is that cats are not always returned to the areas they are picked up from.

“What we are finding is some people are losing their pets. Cats are turning up where they weren’t before. Cats are being found in all sorts of places.”

That is often because of complaints from people who ask the municipality to move the cats on.

“They are trying to please everybody. The problem is there are so many different cultures here and the way people feel about animal welfare is different,” said Tracey Hughes, 45, a full-time rescuer who runs Rescue of Abu Dhabi, which is part of Emirates Animal Welfare.

But failing to follow policy can affect the effectiveness of a TNR programme, according to rescuers.

“If you have a programme, you have to adhere to every letter of your programme. So what you don’t say to one person is 'we will just remove the cat'. What they should do is to educate the person to say 'this is what we do in Abu Dhabi',” said Dr Aylott.

“The government has initiated this great programme, which is fantastic. They are the voice. So what should happen is that everyone should adhere to what the government says. Because the programme is fantastic and it works if it is adhered to.”

Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi runs what Dr Aylott calls a “total solution package” for companies and developments, complete with feeding stations and a TNR programme.

It has been operating at Al Marasy development in Al Bateen now for two years and has achieved a “massive decline” in complaints.

“What happens is when people move in they are told about this programme and it’s not an option. Cats are all fed and sterilised there. There is a whole community which look after cats along with the support of management. They cover the costs and they also reap the benefits,” said Dr Aylott.

“International Capital Trading has asked us to roll out the programme across their other properties because it has been such a success.”

New law to tackle pet abandonment

Owners who dump their pets are a major part of the stray cat problem, and the UAE government is taking action.

Residents who abandon their pets may now suffer legal consequences under regulations announced by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

The legal amendments detail pet ownership obligations, stating animals should not be abandoned under any circumstances, and any act considered as animal cruelty could carry a fine or jail sentence.

Rescuers welcome the law but point out that, because there is no central system to record microchip numbers, it is hard to enforce.

“When I used to work in Dubai and I saw a cat, I would then have to phone every vet in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, everywhere, because there is no database,” said Emma Button, who cares for dozens of cats in her own home.

“If that cat is linked to your passport, there is your proof.”

She has a solution — in addition to a problem she needs to solve first.

She dreams of one day starting an animal shelter complete with boarding facilities, where people can surrender their cats, no questions asked. As part of that she would assemble a database of microchip numbers.

“I already have the software, I just need enough money in the bank to get it going so the vets can then put their information in the system.

“I have spoken to lots of people and I have the numbers. I just need someone who is an animal lover.”

She said boarding makes good money, but it is important to her that a portion of the business also offers some more charitable options.

“That’s the bit I am struggling with because people don’t understand why I would do that,” she said.

Meet the UAE's animal welfare crusaders

Emma Button has opened up her heart - and her home - to dozens of stray cats in need of love and shelter. Antonie Robertson/The National
Emma Button has opened up her heart - and her home - to dozens of stray cats in need of love and shelter. Antonie Robertson/The National

Emma Button simply can't say no to a feline in need.

She has so many cats she has literally lost count, although she estimates the number to be somewhere around 50 — all of which share her four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

From the floor to the very top of the kitchen cupboards, her villa is stacked to the rafters with cats.

Yet it is surprisingly clean, neat and tidy, for Ms Button is no hoarder.

She has made her home an animal refuge as she believes there are just too many of cats and kittens needing homes in Abu Dhabi, and rest of the UAE, for that matter.

Ms Button is just one of many in the country who are trying to help by offering a home to cats that are sick, orphaned, or about to be thrown out on the street.

“I have the best landlord in the world at the minute that lets me do this. That’s important,” she said.

“My last landlord asked me to leave because of the cats.”

Arriving in the UAE in 2011 with two Persians, she has steadily added feline housemates, moving out of a two-bedroom house and into a sprawling four-bedroom villa when it could no longer accommodate them all.

“A lot of people say 'I picked this kitten up but I have realised I can’t keep it. If nobody picks it up I’m going to have to put it back on the streets.' You are then condemning an animal to death.

“I’m not criticising those people. They find themselves in a situation that’s out of their control. And a lot of the bigger cats I have taken on belonged to people who lost their jobs suddenly and find themselves in a situation where they have to go home. And it has come as a shock.”

She knows exactly how that feels, having been made redundant from her general manager role in facilities management late last year.

But abandoning her many cats was never an option.

She has now set up her own company, The Consultancy Hub, which specialises in areas like property, facilities and energy management, but just two months in, it is yet to bring in any money.

So she is relying on her savings to cover her many costs, which are considerable.

“At the minute I am getting through 12 bags of Royal Canin in a month, which is about Dh4,000 on dry food. And then just shy of Dh1,000 a month on litter. So Dh5,000 on food and litter and that’s without the vet bills,” she said.

Ms Button has taken numerous courses in vet administration to keep her bills down, but despite this she has still spent tens of thousands of dirhams on caring for her cats in recent years.

“A year and a half ago I had three cats that had a mutated calicivirus. I lost two and the other two survived. That bill was Dh18,000 with the British Vet,” she said.

“I have probably spent more than Dh100,000 on cats and I have never asked for donations. Of course I feed street cats as well.”

Fawaz Kanaan is on a mission to rescue Dubai's stray cat population. Victor Besa / The National
Fawaz Kanaan is on a mission to rescue Dubai's stray cat population. Victor Besa / The National

A DJ by night, Fawaz Kanaan dedicates his days to caring for cats left without a home in Dubai. He spends much of his time feeding street cats, rounding up those that need to be spayed or neutered and rescuing those that are injured.

One of Dubai’s most prolific rescuers, he also feeds around 400 cats each week, spending the equivalent of Dh200 a day.

Mr Kanaan, who has three cats of his own and fosters four more, said trying to keep the emirate's cat population under control is a "never ending job".

“It is only individuals who are working on it. We can trap 15 or 20 cats a day, but it’s not for free,” he said.

Like other rescuers, Mr Kanaan is entirely self-funded and does not ask for donations. He spends around Dh600 a month on his cats, but has currently reached the maximum he can spend at the clinic, so cannot bring in any more cats until he has cleared at least half his bill.

“Because I am a regular customer with my clinic, they are easy with the payments. Sometimes I pay it in instalments.”

Rescuers do what they can, but they face an uphill battle and often become overwhelmed with the cats they try to help.

Laura Maria, 16, has been feeding and rescuing cats with her mum's help since she was 11. Antonie Robertson/The National
Laura Maria, 16, has been feeding and rescuing cats with her mum's help since she was 11. Antonie Robertson/The National

Laura Maria, a 16-year-old school pupil whose family is from Romania but has lived in the Emirates all her life, started rescuing cats when she was just 11, and has noticed a rise in the number of strays living on the streets.

"I started rescuing about five years ago. The situation has got very bad in the last few years," she said.

Rescuers like Laura say they face an uphill battle to care for street cats in Dubai, where people found feeding cats in Dubai can be hit with a Dh200 fine.

Laura is currently fostering 30 cats and two dogs in her Dubai home, where she lives with her parents.

“Whenever you need to help, you cannot think about the number you have at home whenever you are faced with a situation. It has got to a point where I am at my limit and also my mum is at her limit, so now I am trying to focus on rehoming before I start to help once again.”

Gita Iyer helps rescue and feed strays cats in Sharjah and currently has 16 feline pets in her home. Reem Mohammed/The National
Gita Iyer helps rescue and feed strays cats in Sharjah and currently has 16 feline pets in her home. Reem Mohammed/The National

Gita Iyer, from India, is another member of Dubai’s rescue army.

The unemployed single mother currently has 18 cats in her two-bedroom flat, and treats as many as she can at home since she cannot afford to take them to a clinic.

“In the last one year I sold all my gold because I can’t put my cats out on the streets. Last five years it has been at least Dh40,000 I have spent on this, without any exaggeration,” she said.

“I need 25kg of litter every three days because I have so many at home. Then the feeding, the vaccinations, the neutering, the spaying.”

Fellow rescuer Lisa Mellon works for an airline and spends a lot of her spare money helping stray animals, mostly cats.

She rescued her first stray cat four years ago which was so sick it had to be put down. At the time she vowed not to get involved again, but found herself setting up a rescue group called Humane Animal Rescue Team, which has about 15 active members.

“I get a lot of messages saying hey, come take this cat. Hey, come take this dog. But we’re not a shelter. We can’t help everyone. And everything comes out of our own pockets,” she said.

She admits what they do does not even scratch the surface, but cannot sit back and watch.

Groups like hers do what they can, and some have almost reached breaking point in their efforts to address the UAE’s stray animal problem.

Carers left counting the cost

Animal Action UAE, which is registered under the umbrella of Emirates Animal Welfare society, currently owes its main vet, The Australian Veterinary Hospital, more than Dh60,000.

“We cannot continue to have such high bills owing,” said a message on the group’s Facebook page.

“The amount owed in many places is a very heavy burden. We are volunteers and receive no funding. We are spending so much money out of our own pockets to keep bills from spiralling out of control.”

Their financial woes come despite some clinics doing their bit to help out.

Shammi Chaudhry, the general manager of Animal Specialist Clinic in Dubai, said the clinic offers discounts of 50 per cent on treatment costs for stray animals.

The number of street cats the clinic treats in a week tends to vary, but it is never less than 30 to 40.

The bleak reality of life on the streets

Phil Grange, an administrator for the Facebook group, The Bin Kitty Collective, which helps rescuers find homes for street cats in need, said the situation is dire.

“From October through April — the breeding season which actually only slows down a little during the hot months — the average litter of kittens is five kittens and unless rescued and rehomed, three out of every five will not make it past three months of age and will die from either attacks by alpha male cats, dogs, humans, vehicle accidents, falls from high place, entrapment, pest control or die a horrible and slow death on the streets from starvation or diseases they are not equipped to recover from.

“And if we include all the kittens that die, the average life expectancy for all stray cats falls to around 18 months.”

Updated: March 10, 2019 09:57 AM

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