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21 May 2024

UAE hospital is one for the birds

The Abu Dhabi hospital treats more than 5,000 falcons a year. (AFP)

By W G Dunlop

Under the watchful eyes of a white-coated doctor, two orderlies in scrubs sedate the patient on a paper-covered stainless steel table, then begin the procedure – trimming her vital hunting tools.

One of the orderlies carefully snips the brown and white falcon's wicked, two-centimetre talons, then files them back to points. Twenty-one other falcons, their heads covered in small leather hoods, sit across the room on perches that are covered with green artificial turf.

These falcons are just a few of the 5,000 treated each year at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH), which is located just a few kilometres outside the UAE's capital.

"This hospital is the largest falcon hospital in the whole world," says its Director, German veterinarian Margit Muller. "It was the first public falcon hospital," she adds.

"The original idea behind the hospital was to provide the best possible medical care for the falcons of the Abu Dhabi emirate," she says. But "now we treat falcons of all the UAE, plus the adjacent Gulf countries."

Hunting with falcons is a longstanding tradition in the Gulf states. Most Emirati falconers hunt in Pakistan or north Africa, as hunting with falcons is banned in the UAE.

Earlier, lovers of falconry in the region flew to Afghanistan with their falcons for the hunting games.

Traditionally, the Gulf's nomadic bedouin tribes used to use wild falcons, but today, hunting falcons are captive-bred, and most cost between $800 (Dh2,936) and $4,000.

Falconry "is part of my life and my family's life in the past," says Mubarak Saeed Obaid Al Mansouri, a falconer and resident of Abu Dhabi who brought all eight of his falcons to the UAE capital's hospital for check-ups.

Falconry "means too much to me", he says, adding that his falcons are "like one of my sons".

"My father was my first teacher, who taught me how to hunt with falcons and how to treat it like a good friend," he says.

The ADFH's director says such devotion is widespread among the UAE's Arab citizen population.

"Here, falconry is not a sport. It is a part of the culture, a part of the tradition," Muller says.

"Falcons are regarded… like part of the family."

A curly-haired, middle-aged woman in gold-rimmed glasses and white lab coat, she shares her customers' passion for her patients.

"Falcons are absolutely fascinating," she says with a broad smile. She describes them as "huge, beautiful, majestic" birds, gesturing with both hands as she speaks.

"Each one has an individual character," she says. "Each one has an individual personality."

But treating them, Muller says, can be difficult.

"Falcons are usually only showing symptoms of diseases when they are extremely sick," she says. "Sometimes you have a falcon that is really sick, but it's almost impossible for the owner to detect."

For this reason, the hospital conducts routine checkups on falcons, which usually include blood work, an X-ray, a faecal sample and checking the falcon's internal organs for problems.

Falconers bring in their birds for check-ups, which usually take a few hours, two to four times a year.

Sick or injured falcons can also be hospitalised at the ADFH, which, Muller says, is an official Abu Dhabi government institution.

"We can, at the moment, keep about 150 falcons here for treatment," says Mohammed Nafeez, a research associate at the ADFH, adding that between 60 and 70 were currently in the hospital. And birds can be boarded at the ADFH when their owners are on holiday.

The hospital also has two large aviaries to hold falcons while they are moulting, or changing their feathers.

One aviary currently holds 12 falcons, which periodically wing across the enclosure. When not in the mood for flying, the birds can sit in one of the air-conditioned rooms at each end.

Muller emphasises that the ADFH is more than just a hospital for falcons.

"We are not only treating falcons, we are doing research work on falcons," she says. As there is no specific course of study on falcon medicine, "we have set up a special training programme for falcon medicine here in the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital", she says.

"We have a lot of veterinarians and students coming to us from all over the world to study here."

In 2006, seven years after the ADFH's foundation, it began treating other species of birds as well. (AFP)


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