When Blonde and Brunette began planning our trip to Abu Dhabi Brunette noted the Abu Dhai Falcon Hospital is the #2 rated attraction on Trip Advisor. We contacted the hospital and swooned with gratitude and delight that they gave us a tour and we got to meet privately with Dr. Muller. She is world-famous for her work with falcons, has won lots and lots of awards, is multi-lingual, humorous and charming. We now have girl crushes on her (unrequited, to our knowledge).
Dr. Muller explained that in Bedouin culture, which is the heritage of the United Arab Emirates, falcons are treated as family members. They are not seen as being pets. They have their own room in their owner’s home, they ride in the car with him (it’s always “him”) and get their own seats on commercial flights (and we aren’t talking economy class here). Falcons must carry ID to fly – in airplanes, that is. They have passports that state their breed, gender, weight (wonder if they lie?) , and other identifying information.
Female falcons are about 1/3 larger than the males and constitute most of the approximately 9,000 patients per year at the hospital. On average the falcons live 12 to 15 years. (Please allow us a very discrete chuckle that in Arabic culture the female falcons are more valued than the males because they’re stronger.) They can kill an animal as large as a gazelle but in that case it becomes a buffet because a gazelle is too big for the falcon to carry off. If they get a gazelle they invite their friends over for the falcon version of a cook out (without the cooking part). They also kill desert rats, rabbits and foxes and do not share those with anyone! In the UAE it isn’t permissible to hunt so the owners take their falcons to Pakistan, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to go hunting.
In the hospital waiting room there were lots of different types and sizes of falcons waiting for whatever procedures they’d been brought in to have performed. (The government subsidizes the cost of falcon medical care. And the U.S. is all riled up about making health care accessible to humans!)
A procedure that is done frequently is having their talons trimmed – a falcon pedicure except they don’t get the polish. Even though the falcons are girls they don’t seem to enjoy pedicures so they have to be anesthetized first. (You know how some days your feet are ticklish and some days they aren’t? Apparently they always are for falcons.)
Because the falcons are kept in captivity their talons grow and grow. If they were in the wild their nails would get worn off just doing their day jobs. When talons get too long they can actually dig into the falcon’s foot and cause very nasty cuts that can become infected. When that happens it’s called “Bumblefoot”. (Trivia for you – the guitarist for Guns ‘n Roses is Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal.)
The veterinarian picked up a falcon and before she knew what happened, her head (the falcon’s, not the veterinarian’s) was in a clear mask, she was administered Aerrane and then she peacefully conked out. Some falcons close their eyes when they’re asleep and some don’t. Here’s another trivia game-winning answer for you – falcon eyelids close from the bottom up, the reverse of humans (with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin).
The hospital makes and fits special falcon shoes to be worn by birds that “Bumblefooted” themselves and now need to let the cut heal. As the falcons are predominately female, surely they can’t feel too good about all having to wear the same shoes as the other girls. A good incentive for proper foot care.
Just like in a “real” ER Dr. Muller was called out of the room during the early stages of the pedicure as she needed to go do some emergency surgery. We were quite impressed but had to scurry away before we saw her make the actual incision in the falcon. She has clearly watched Gray’s Anatomy a lot as she performed the incision the same way they do.
The doctor who took over after Dr. Muller was called away offered to let Blonde be the demo person showing how to feed a falcon. It still isn’t entirely clear if this was a reward or a punishment but it sure was interesting! Blonde was given a gigantic glove, a large falcon sans hood and a naked, featherless, cold dead quail. In other words a totally normal day.
After feeding time (for the falcons, not us) we went over to the aviary. When owners go away and don’t take their falcons with them or in the summer when it’s incredibly hot they sometimes board their falcons at the aviary. We were visiting on a cool day so there weren’t many boarders but each aviary has multiple air conditioners running when it’s hot out.
All of the falcons are fed at the same time. If there are 20 falcons there would be about 30 or 35 dead rodents placed on the buffet table (one of many reasons Blonde does not like buffets). This is so those who want second helpings will have an adequate supply. If there isn’t, the veterinarian told us that the next morning one of the smaller, weaker falcons will have “disappeared”. Kind of like dropping your kid off at the Lord of the Flies Day Care Center and getting some bad news when you show up at the end of the day. Do not try to introduce The Clean Plate Club to a bunch of falcons; this is a case where leftovers are a very good thing.
The tour concluded in a separate building from the hospital. The building houses the quite beautiful Shaheen Conference Center where presumably birds of a feather flock together. There is also a small but interesting museum of the history of falconry, a taxidermied camel and a nice man who lets you have your picture taken with him and a falcon.
We hope it wasn’t a commentary on our reporting abilities, but after we took turns posing with the falcon it had an “accident” on the floor and the man had to clean the floor with a tissue. That did not appear to be in his job description but was clearly an occupational hazard.
We have shown massive restraint in not writing a post twice this long about all of the interesting things we saw and learned at the Falcon Hospital but we know you have a very poor attention span and probably didn’t even read this far. However, if you did you will be rewarded with this picture of a Peregrine Falcon, the national bird of the United Arab Emirates.