When Martin Koebke’s pet cat Panther went missing, he feared the worst. But his understanding of what the ‘worst’ would involve changed when Panther was found. Koebke discovered his cat, a two-year-old tom, dumped by the roadside three days after his disappearance: there was a rope tied around his neck. He had been strangled.
‘I had him for just over six months,’ says Koebke, a German expat who lives in the Springs area. ‘He was a stray and I took him in.’ He is obviously still shaken by the incident. There’s a tremble in his voice when he tells us: ‘The biggest shock was not only that he was dead, but that he had this big, fat rope around his neck. It’s really hard to explain it. It’s so wrong, it’s like you’re watching a movie.’ Put simply, it was an act so cruel that it didn’t seem real.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Panther is one of three cats to be murdered in the Springs area in the past six months: two Persian cats died after being shot earlier this year. There have been several shocking stories in the local press concerning ‘pet homicides’ in Dubai, such as the puppy hanged by its leash in Satwa two years ago. The corpse stayed there for more than 18 hours before someone asked for it to be cut down.
Panther’s killer is yet to be caught, but what would happen if he or she was found? Mohammed Yousef, head of the veterinary patrol unit in the Dubai Municipality’s Veterinary Services department, tells us that new laws have been passed to punish animal cruelty. He explains that after the Municipality has investigated a case, ‘we can make [the perpetrator] sign an undertaking not to do it again. Or we can put him in jail for 30 days, or up to a year. Or he has to pay a fine.’
Yousef adds that any pet owner who is found guilty of cruelty is put on a ‘black list’ that prevents them from owning any more animals. But it seems this is a work in progress. When we ask if Dubai’s pet shops have access to this black list so that they know who not to serve, or whether there are any plans to introduce a licence for pet owners, he responds: ‘No. This is a good question. There needs to be a connection between us and the pet shop.’
In fairness, tackling animal cruelty in Dubai is no easy task. With so many cultures in one place, attitudes towards animal welfare can vary wildly. ‘European people don’t like people who [are cruel to animals],’ says Yousef. ‘[But] some people from other countries in the world, this is normal for them.’ But he is adamant the Municipality will strive to stop animal cruelty here. ‘We try to educate people. People are understanding more and more, but it needs time.’
While Koebke does not know who killed Panther, in many past cases it has turned out to be children who have committed the crime. Gisele Orsmond, a South African expat also living in the Springs area, used to volunteer with Feline Friends. She gave up because she ‘burned out’, but she still carries out pet rescue work by herself. ‘I do a lot of rescue work with street cats in Karama, and the abuse that happens there is [from] children,’ Orsmond says. ‘I think they’ve just never been taught how to live with animals, or that animals experience pain and fear like humans do. They need to be educated.’
More education in schools would certainly help, hopefully nurturing a more ‘animal rights-aware’ generation in Dubai. But aside from the animals, the question to ask is whether a person who commits these acts needs help themselves. Surely it’s not normal to kill so callously?
Dr Shujaat Nathani, a psychiatrist with Health Call clinic in Dubai Healthcare City, confirms that cruelty to animals is a recurring facet of ‘conduct disorder’. ‘People with this disorder have no remorse,’ he explains. ‘I’ve had several cases where [patients have] strung cats up from trees and set them on fire.’ There was even one case where a small boy ‘was trying to drown a cat in a toilet’. Dr Nathani warns that if conduct disorder goes untreated, ‘that child will grow up with an antisocial personality disorder. Without treatment, they can end up in jail or could mess around with the wrong person and get killed.’ Conduct disorder is considered a major public health problem.
In that case, it’s in everyone’s interest to educate about animal welfare and ensure that those responsible for cruelty are held accountable. Koebke is still in shock about what happened to Panther. He says he is ‘heartbroken’. ‘Cats have their own little characters. It’s like they’re family,’ he says. ‘Somebody killed, in the most brutal way, part of my family.’ But he feels that if someone were caught, they would merely receive ‘a slap on the wrist’. He argues that such cases should be tackled with more urgency.
Likewise, Orsmond would like to see more government recognition for animal charities. Feline Friends, for example, was first established in the early ’90s and has campaigned tirelessly ever since, but is yet to be licensed as an official charity by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. She thinks this sends out the wrong message – that animal welfare isn’t important.
However, there are signs the situation may improve. Another home-grown animal lovers’ organisation, K9 Friends, recently built new kennel facilities for stray dogs at Jebel Ali on land donated by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. And Yousef tells us there is a 24-hour helpline for Dubai citizens to report animal cruelty. Call 800 900 and ask for the veterinary department, and they will investigate your complaint within three working days, he tells us.
Orsmond adds that she has set up an email address for people to report abuse in the Springs, Meadows and Lakes areas. ‘If you can, take pictures,’ she advises. ‘Without evidence, the police can do nothing. Keep your eyes open, report it, take a picture, then we can start the ball rolling.’
To report animal abuse in the Springs, Meadows and Lakes areas, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 800 900 to report animal cruelty to the Dubai Municipality Veterinary Services department.
While stories about ‘pet homicide’ in Dubai are undoubtedly scary, you shouldn’t let this infringe on your pets’ freedom. ‘You can’t keep them inside all the time, because that’s cruel as well,’ says Koebke. ‘You need to give them a good life and that means giving them their freedom.’ Neighbourhood watch schemes, such as the one Orsmond is kick-starting with her new email service, are a good solution. If everyone keeps an eye out for each other, communities are likely to feel a lot safer.