On holiday in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, Anne-Marie and her daughter made an unexpected find…
Anne Marie: “Four years ago when my daughter Natasha was 13, we visited family in Abu Dhabi. While we were there we went to a local market for some fabric for an art project. Ziani market serves the migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, it’s a district with very few women and no one speaks English. But there are street cats everywhere you look.
The cats are very beautiful with long legs, slim faces and pointed ears. Some people feed and care for them, others treat them like pests.
Very few tourists go to Ziani but we became well known because Natasha almost immediately came across a cat with three kittens on the pavement. Natasha decided to call her Camilla and, to the great horror of the local shopkeepers, we returned every day with cat food. We bought a feather from the haberdashery shop and attached it to a stick. The cats loved it, the stallholders were amused and our trips to Ziani became a highlight of the holidays.
Then we went back to England. Other people feed the street cats too so we knew Camilla would be ok. But when we came back to Abu Dhabi in December, we dropped our suitcases and went straight to the market to look for Camilla, but there was no sign of her.
Then a shopkeeper called out to us: ‘Kitten wounded!’ He was pointing to a stack of fabric. Behind it we found one of Camilla’s kittens with an injured front paw. She’d been hit by a car. So we found a cage, caught her – she was very friendly – and took her back to the villa. We stay with Abu Dhabians who despise cats and dogs – so we hid the kitten in our bathroom. We called her Lola.
The next day we took Lola to the British vet. We had to make several more (expensive) visits in the course of our three week stay but Lola was a joy – a cat in a million – very intelligent and great fun. She was immediately house trained and enjoyed the garden from the French doors of our bedroom. We adored her – but we were going back to England. So we asked everyone we knew if they wanted a cat. Finally someone said yes and Lola went to her new home – in an Embassy no less – and we went home happy too.
At Easter we went to Abu Dhabi again and Natasha insisted on going straight to Ziani market. We called for Camilla who emerged from a bush just outside the mosque. She showed us two boy kittens on the pavement and then climbed up a three metre wall and slipped behind a shop sign – the shopkeeper told us there were a couple of kittens up there as well.
All the locals then came out onto the street to watch the European woman climbing up a ladder and calling ‘Kitty, Kitty’…. I couldn’t reach the kittens but I left them some food.
In the meantime a shopkeeper told us about another cat with kittens on the next street. This mother cat wasn’t friendly like Camilla but she accepted food and we called her Sophia. She had a ginger boy we named Simba and another, Oliver. We visited them every day.
Locals had already told us that the best way to help the street cats is to get them sterilized to break the cycle of pregnancies and litters of unwanted kittens. So once we got to know Sophia and her kittens we caught them, took Sophia to the vet to be sterilized and then kept them with us for the rest of our stay.
One day we went to Ziani and found one of Camilla’s kittens all alone on the pavement. Her brothers and Camilla had moved on and abandoned her. She stroked our legs and Natasha said: ‘Shall we?’ So we picked her up, popped her in our bag and took her home. We called her Leila. Now we had kittens hidden everywhere – it was still frowned upon to have cats in the house – and we were soon due to return to London.
Again we asked around and Lola’s owner introduced us to an artist who immediately fell in love with Oliver. But most people were about to leave the city for the summer – they didn’t want to adopt cats – so following the advice of the locals we returned Sophia to Ziani where she trotted off happily to her old haunts.
But that still left us with the two homeless kittens: Simba and Leila. At the last minute the vet put us in touch with a local lady, Rhada, who has rescued many street cats – she found a foster home for the kittens and we went back to England.
In the autumn we returned but so did Simba and Leila – the foster home couldn’t keep them anymore. They were both much bigger, Leila in fact was rather fat, and they were very happy. But what to do now? At this point Rhada took matters into her own hands – and a few weeks later Natasha and I found ourselves at Heathrow Terminal 4, with piles of paperwork, picking up our two little Abu Dhabian cats.
We took them back to our apartment in Kensington and it was as if they had lived there all their lives. They are very happy and contented with their new life and I’m incredibly proud of them.
Back in Abu Dhabi we saw Sophia twice more. She was footloose and fancy free – no more kittens – she looked well and life was good. But when we went back at Christmas we were told that the municipality had caught all the strays. It’s likely they were put out into the desert and wouldn’t have survived.
Camilla, the mother cat, escaped the pest control because she was hidden in her favourite patch of shrubbery with five new kittens. She came out to see us when we called for her so we decided to catch the whole family. With Rhada’s help we found homes for all of them: two are now in Australia and Camilla lives very happily with a family in Chelsea.
There’s one more story about Leila and Simba. A couple of days after they arrived in London I woke up in the morning to find our front door open. It leads out onto the communal hallway of our apartment building. I was horrified – thousands of miles, hundreds of pounds and our lovely cats, who’d only been here three days, could have been lost! But no, both cats were in their bed. Next morning the same thing happened, the front door was open. The rumours spread quickly – there’s an old story that our building is haunted by the ghost of a woman with long dark hair though we’ve never seen her.
The next evening as I was watching television I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there was our brown-haired ghost crouched by the door – it was Leila. As I watched she jumped, caught the door handle very deliberately with two paws and pulled it towards her whilst her back feet braced against the door frame! The lock clicked open, the door swung inwards and she dropped back to the ground. Simba then led the way into the hallway and Leila who’s a little bit of a scaredy-cat followed him. Since then we’ve had to foil the ‘ghost’ by double locking the door.
Rhada and I became good friends and I now help her to re-home street cats – long-distance from London – by placing ads in the Abu Dhabi version of Gumtree and matching the right family to each cat. In a month I might find homes for 35 cats. Adult cats are less popular out there – but that’s not the case over here in the UK. So far we’ve brought 38 cats to Britain – its not cheap: as well as the shipping costs all the cats are tested for FIV (feline HIV), vaccinated and micro-chipped. But our elegant, intelligent Arabian cats have found lots of happy homes in London.