Dubai animal sanctuary

Emirati Ayesha Kelaif has spent 13 years turning her Barsha villa into an animal shelter

The shelter’s tortoises are 12 years old
The shelter’s tortoises are 12 years old
Ayesha and her beloved bulldog, Bacardi
Ayesha and her beloved bulldog, Bacardi

Ayesha Kelaif is a modern-day Doctor Doolittle. Though not officially a doctor or vet, she has cared for hundreds of sick animals during the past 13 years at her converted Barsha villa. Ayesha, her husband and three children (two of whom are away at university) live on the first floor of the five-bed property, while the ground floor is home to the 218 residents of Dubai Animal Rescue Centre (DARC), including rabbits, snakes, parrots, monkeys ponies, gazelles, snakes and even three alpacas.

Yet Ayesha can’t run the centre without help. As part of a push to raise awareness, DARC is opening its doors to the public for the evening on May 23 so Dubai residents can meet the animals, enjoy live music from
DJ Bliss and help the cause by volunteering some of their spare time. ‘Volunteers are always welcome – they can register for our clean-up days,’ says Ayesha. ‘Thankfully, the neighbours have also been very supportive. Their children visit every day trying to help out in any way they can. It’s very much appreciated.’

Although the house can get noisy (and smelly in certain enclosures), Ayesha enforces a rule that no animals are allowed on the first floor. There are different enclosures around the house and the garden to suit the needs of each animal, many of which have been donated by previous owners who can’t care for them any more. ‘I can’t take all the animals in, but I do my very best to care for as many as I can,’ says Aysha, who has had some of the animals, such as the tortoises, for 12 years. ‘I’d like to think we are a sanctuary for animals, dedicated to rescuing them and caring for them. There was always a need for a rescue centre here in Dubai, and as a child I always wanted to help animals. I remember sitting with animals when I was younger, making sure they were safe. Now I finally have my own centre. I’m amazed at how far it has come.’

Ziad Al Jamaan, from Saudi Arabia, is a regular volunteer at the centre. ‘The tortoises were somebody’s pets, but they started to get too big and the previous owners couldn’t take care of them any more,’ he explains. The same goes for other animals, such as Sid, the boa constrictor. ‘He also used to be kept as a pet,’ says Ziad. ‘But although he’s had his venom removed, the owners started getting scared when he got too big, so they contacted us and asked us to take him. He’s very strong – he could potentially choke someone. Snakes shouldn’t really be kept as pets. Luckily, though, Sid is really friendly and loves having his picture taken.’

Other animals at the centre haven’t been so fortunate. One of the deer arrived missing an eye, with a tennis ball-sized hole where it should have been. DARC soon patched her up and, although now blind in one eye, she looks like Bambi again. This treatment, as with everything at DARC, was funded by Ayesha herself. ‘It’s not the easiest thing to do with all these vet bills, she explains. ‘But someone’s got to do it.’

Aysha originally founded the centre after rescuing a dog in 1999, and admits she still has a soft spot for bulldogs. She currently has four, aka Ogi, Bailey, Bacardi and Champy; Ogi was found hanging from a tree after being tied up by some kids. Her other favourite animal is Rio, the blue and orange macaw, who was found in a box in a car park. ‘He has really taken to Aysha,’ says Ziad. ‘He’ll turn on his back and let her stroke him. This is extremely rare for a parrot, and a sign that he trusts her for life. He even gets jealous when she’s with the dogs, and follows her around.’

Ziad explains that volunteering at DARC is one of the best things he’s ever done. ‘It honestly makes me feel really good. Whether I’m cleaning out a very dirty snake cage or writing up an adoption contract for one of our animals, it’s a really fun place to be. When you become a regular volunteer, at mealtimes Ayesha often gives you enough food to feed an army. She makes me feel like one of the family.’ For volunteers that want to get involved on a more permanent basis, domestic animals are also up for adoption, though the centre is very careful who they allow to adopt and carry out thorough house checks beforehand.

With events such as this week’s open evening, Aysha hopes to get more people involved in the centre. ‘We have about 15 to 20 regular helpers, and those who are keen to join us can sign up at the open day,’
she says. ‘We’re a big family, and hopefully we can keep getting bigger.’

Dubai Animal Rescue Centre’s open evening is on May 23 at 7pm-9pm. Street 14a, villa 40, Al Barsha 3, (050 841 2495)

Want to volunteer?

• Helpers at the rescue centre will deal with everything from abandoned cats and dogs to turkeys running around Dubai World Trade Centre.
• Volunteers may take calls from people wanting to adopt pets or enquiries from schools wanting to visit and learn about the animals.
• There’s a lot of maintenance to be done, whether bathing the animals or cleaning out a stable.
• You’ll also learn more about how to look after different animals.
For more info on volunteering, see (04 452 1106)

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