x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Women of the UAE's Saluki squad

How far would you go to adopt a Saluki? One woman travelled half way round the world.

Catherine Gomis, Anna Bensalah and Yelena Swain (left to right) walk their Salukis on the lawns of Emirates Towers in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National
Catherine Gomis, Anna Bensalah and Yelena Swain (left to right) walk their Salukis on the lawns of Emirates Towers in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National

They have promised to make an easier road for the dogs that have played such a major part in the UAE's heritage, and yet are often dumped or abused. But the ladies of Ascod's plans to promote and assist the Bedouin breed do not stop there, Alice Haine reports

Pamela Fredieu had to look a little further than her native California when she decided she wanted to adopt a rescued Saluki.

With limited numbers of the breed to be found in the US, it took a 22-hour flight to find the right dog - or rather, dogs.

In the end, Pamela went home with two Salukis rescued by the Arabian Saluki Centre of Dubai (Ascod), a non-profit organisation that finds new homes for Salukis and other needy animals.

The dog lover heard about the group after reading a magazine article about a Saluki beauty contest in the region, and after getting in touch with organiser Yelena Swain was told she could adopt.

"Dog people are crazy and some people take that extra step," says Pamela, 54, a legal secretary and mother of four. "I needed to go where there was a rescue and when I found one in the Middle East, there was no other choice.

"What else better than to go straight to the source of the original dog, and it has been a great honour to see the Saluki in its natural habitat.

"It's just unfortunate so many are abandoned."

Getting Paris and Rue - who Pamela will rename Pooh in keeping with her tradition of calling her pets names beginning with P - from Dubai to California was no mean feat.

Ascod usually flies the dogs with "flight buddies", or people flying to a destination who are happy to travel with an animal on their ticket at no extra cost.

But with no one available for that route, Pamela flew in for a weekend, spending almost Dh10,000 in airline and adoption costs.

Her international rescue mission is not unusual for the team at Ascod.

First set up as a networking group in 2008 by an Emirati passionate about the breed, it evolved into a rescue group after Yelena, 42, a Russian mother who has lived in the UAE for 17 years, took over in 2011.

She now has a group of volunteers to help her rescue, foster and send Salukis overseas.

Last year they rescued 35 animals, mainly Salukis, sending a handful to Russia and Belgium. This year six have gone abroad - two to the US, one to Denmark, two to Germany and one to Northern Ireland.

"We have an Italian guy coming who wants a Saluki so he's going to combine business and rehoming a Saluki, and there is a lady from Sweden that wants to adopt," says Yelena.

"Sending them overseas is better because the person's home is there. With expats, we have to be careful because they move on. We make it clear that if they go, they take the dogs and they have to sign an adoption agreement.

"The last thing we want is to rescue a dog and then have it back again."

The group keeps in touch with its adopted dogs through its Facebook page, with new owners posting pictures of the pets in their new environments.

"One dog is now living on a beach in Denmark and his new owner says he is a wonderful dog," says Yelena.

Rescued dogs come from a variety of sources. Some are found abandoned in the desert or running wild on busy roads. Others are taken from local shelters, from homes where they are being abused or from expats moving on and not wanting to take pets with them.

Ascod's volunteers then rally around finding foster homes to care for the animals until they can be adopted. It is a full-time, unpaid job that requires dedication and all the women have thrown themselves into it.

Anna Bensalah, a mother of two boys aged five and three, became involved last summer when she wanted to adopt a Saluki.

Through Yelena she took in a sandy, feathered Saluki called Bella and, with a background in business development, offered to help structure the organisation.

It was a decision Anna almost regretted when the first dogs she rescued died a week later.

"It was straight in my face and at first I said I wanted to stop because it was the dark side of rescue that you don't necessarily see," says Anna, 36, who devotes 30 hours a week to Ascod and now owns three dogs, two of which are Salukis.

"But it also made me think there are some we can save and we just need funds."

Putting aside her emotions, she took on the organisation's administrative work, updating the Facebook page, and organising pick ups and drops at local vets and foster carers.

By the end of last year the two were joined by Trine Petersen, 33, a Danish chemical and biotechnical analyst, who describes herself as "the go-getter", often driving out into the desert to pick up abandoned Salukis the group has heard about.

Finally Catherine Gomis, 31, from Australia, a dog trainer and businesswoman, fosters and trains the Salukis and plans to use her business acumen to run fund-raising events.

Why the Arabian desert hound is so important to this group of women might seem curious.

Bred by Bedouin for thousands of years, the Saluki is a desert hunting dog renowned for its stamina, and assisted desert dwellers by hunting for food.

Today, the Saluki is often found in domestic homes, although Saluki racing, similar to greyhound racing but over a longer distance, has become popular regionally in recent years, with the fastest commanding prizes such as cars and cash amounts of more than Dh100,000.

But for the women of Ascod, it is simply a love affair with the breed.

"It's so much more than just an animal," says Anna.

Yelena nods. "I have instant bond with Salukis. I have a gut feeling about them. Looking at a Saluki is like looking at an artform."

Whatever the reason, the women are all passionate about their work, giving up their spare time and some money to keep the organisation alive.

"We barely make ends meet," says Yelena, who adds that Ascod has much bigger plans than simply rehoming unwanted dogs.

"We don't just want to be a shelter. We want to be an educational centre with a shelter, a dog park and a vet on site."

They want to make the project sustainable with boarding kennels for Saluki owners who want to leave their pets while away on holiday, and an exhibition looking at the breed's history and why it is such a huge part of UAE culture and heritage.

They know there is a demand for such a centre because of all the interest that tourism has generated for the Arabian horse, the camel and the falcon. But as of yet, they have no centre.

As Trine points out: "It's not the ideas that are missing, it's the funding."

The group raises funds through a company set up in the UK.

The members also sell cakes, unwanted household items and traditional Saluki collars at flea markets, and post pictures of dogs undergoing treatment on their Facebook page to encourage residents to donate directly to vets' clinics.

"The ladies working in Ascod go above and beyond the call of duty," says Pamela, who became interested in the breed in 1978 when she began showing them in the US and now wants to help Ascod from California.

"I think it's a shame more is not done to promote and preserve the national dog of the Middle East. I'm going to do whatever I can to raise awareness of these Saluki rescues for those who want to give them homes here in the US."

International support certainly raises Ascod's profile and helps to find more homes, but getting the funds and a licence to run their own shelter and educational centre will take time and money.

There is hope, however. The group now has the support of Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, a Saluki racer and member of the ruling family who owns more than 300 Salukis.

Sheikh Rashid regularly enters his dogs in desert races, housing them in air-conditioned kennels at his home.

He is also one of the organisation's main carers, fostering four dogs that have been abandoned or abused by previous owners, and has become a link between Ascod and the Saluki racing community.

"The two work well together," Sheikh Rashid says. "It used to be that dogs that were no longer needed for racing were thrown in the desert. That doesn't happen here so much, but elsewhere in the region.

"I try to find Europeans that want them as pets or people who want to use them in beauty competitions. But if I have to deal with any organisation I only deal with Ascod. It is easier dealing with them."

For the group, this relationship is crucial.

"We want the racers to understand that if for some reason they are not able to take care of their dog, we'll take it. We don't want it to be abandoned," says Trine.

For now, the volunteers have no idea what the future holds.

"In the long term it will not work without funds," says Anna. "But at the same time, it is hard to turn your back on Salukis that need help and go back to coffee dates - you can't."

Paris and Pooh have bonded with Pamela's family and her other three dogs.

"When I first met Rue, she lifted her paw to put it on me and Paris was very relaxed, like she was saying, 'no worries, you're going to be my mum'.

"What these ladies have done out of their own pockets to save animals that were in horrible conditions is incredible.

"This is a dog, a companion that has been bred to hunt for man and it should be treated with the respect it deserves, even when it no longer serves a purpose."

arayer@thenational.ae