by Victoria Aitken
Ever heard of a hospital which is an international tourist attraction recommended by guidebooks and airlines? Where state of the art medical technology is virtually limitless? And whose patients are all VIPs yet never complain? Welcome to Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital in the United Arab Emirates. A guided tour tells you all about these beloved birds and the dedication and achievements of award winning veterinarian Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller.
Since the days of the Knights of the Round Table, falcons have had their place in England’s folklore, heraldry, and royal hunts of the sun. But falconry was never a people’s sport or a national obsession the way it is today in the Arabian Gulf. If King Arthur had a bird that was not flying high enough or swooping fast enough, he would have probably wrung its neck. Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, built a hospital for his ailing falcons near his favorite oasis of Al Ain - a showpiece of medical excellence rising in the sand dunes as a symbol of the caring relationship between top Bedouins and their top birds.
Twelve years ago the Falcon Hospital of Abu Dhabi was opened both as a treatment and research centre. Over 6,000 birds a year use its operating theatres, anesthetics, digital x-rays, incubators, endoscopy, ophthalmology, and general medical facilities under the supervision of 35 veterinary specialists. The result has been a revolution in falcon heath care.As hospital director Dr. Muller explains “We have an Endoscopy – it’s an advanced diagnostic tool so we can follow up on any diseased birds. We have digital x-ray machine, laser for surgery [and] ophthalmology equipment for eyes. In the intensive care [we have] incubators for critically ill falcons…We also have lab technology…for all virus, bacteria, and we also have a genes lab.”
The hospital uses the anesthetic Isoflorent, the same drug used for humans. According to Dr. Muller, “we catch the bird, put head of bird in a mask – and the gas, mixed with oxygen is then put into the mask…and then bird inhales it and in a minute the bird is fully asleep…When a procedure is finished we just switch off anesthetic…and the bird can wake up very fast.”
Emirati families with Bedouin roots have falcons as pets. How to bring up a falcon is passed on from generation to generation. Normally a father takes his son to the desert for training. They use a lure, which looks like a duck and the falcons try to hunt it. For Emiratis, falcons are part of the family, loved like a son or daughter. As Dr. Muller explains “the family connection to the falcon is extremely strong, they really love their birds, and do every thing for them.”
Falcons are prone to special diseases, particularly the Aspergillosis virus and parasites. They contract these diseases when the prey is sick or has as a bacterial infection and also from food that has gone sour. Most common injuries occur during the hunting seasons when the birds fly into obstacles or hit the ground without breaking. The hospital gets many leg and wing fractures.
Dr. Muller stresses that with “routine examinations I can detect diseases early and just give pills. It works well and saves on the cost of healthcare. If problems are left to the last minute, it can be expensive.”Falcons have the finest eyes in the animal kingdom. They need extraordinary ophthalmology equipment and treatment when their sight fails. They need high-tech manicures, not for luxury but as a matter of survival, for an overgrown beak or claws can cause starvation. Additionally, Falcons sometimes need refeathering because when a bird is missing feathers it cannot land well. The vet explains “for those higher up feathers needing replacement we use bamboo sticks as it’s a light material and elastic. We cut a bamboo stick, put it in and select a replacement feather and stick it on the bamboo, and then glue all of the bamboo in the original feather part fragment to the wing. That replacement will stay one year. After one year… the bird will molt, and then a new feather will grow completely.”
The outpatient department of the hospital is where the 21st century meets the 11th century. For at least a millennium, Bedouin tribesmen have been handling their falcon with traditional methods.
Walking into the high tech hospital after driving through miles of dusty desert was an amazing experience. Owners sat with hooded birds on their arms in the waiting room. Falcons are kept in hoods because when kept in the same place they look at each other as prey. The birds sat patiently on their perches waiting to be seen by the experts.
During a trip to the falcon hospital, not only do you see the latest in modern technology, you also learn about the history of falconry and the need for falcon passports. Falcons are trained in the UAE’s desert but if you want to go hunting, then you have to take your birds to Kazakhstan or to Pakistan which requires a falcon passport. If an owner forgets his bird’s passport, the bird is confiscated at the airport. Every time a bird travels it also needs to have a health certificate.
One of the main jobs of the falcon hospital is to inspect birds on their way in and the way out of the country. On average each bird comes to the falcon hospital about 3-4 times a year. The hospital’s busiest time is during hunting season and on one day can see up to 100 falcons.
About the author:
Victoria Aitken has been published in The Sunday Times, Style Magazine, The Daily Mail, Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian. She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, educated in Germany, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C, where she earned a B.A. in international relations from Georgetown University.