The falcon is to an Emirati what a peacock is to an Indian — the national bird. The sport of falconry has deep roots in the UAE’s culture, ever since falcons were used as hunters by the Bedouins of the region. In the scarce environment of the desert, falcons helped Bedouins hunt bustards and curlews. Unlike most predatory creatures, these birds can be trained to deliver their prey without first killing it.
Today, the falcon enjoys a privileged status — it gets issued a passport and can travel (only) business class or first class, is eligible for state-of-the-art medical treatment and gets a new pair of wings, in case old ones are damaged (faux wings made from collected feathers are stitched through surgery). A golden falcon even enjoys pride of place as the UAE’s national emblem.
A visit to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital — the world’s first and largest hospital dedicated to the bird — lists out all of that. The facility started in 1999 under the direction of a German veterinary surgeon, Margit Gabriele Muller, but it is only recently that it has opened up to visitors of all ages and nationalities, with the aim of “humanising the bird and giving it its due share in pop culture” as the guide told us during the hour-long tour. The tour costs 30 dirham (around Rs 600), the proceeds of which go towards maintaining the facility.
Each year, over 10,000 birds go through check-ups and treatment at the hospital; some occupy the 200 air-conditioned treatment rooms during recuperation. There is also a paid boarding facility for those who want to leave their pets behind during travels.
Müller explained how a guided tour also functions as a sure-shot way for the new generation to get an insight into the history of falconry as a sport and the physiology of this bird. One gets to see a host of them swoop through a free-flight aviary, witness a falcon pedicure and even make friends with the birds as one perches on your arm and eats his portion of quail meat.
“It functions exactly the same way as a human hospital,” she says, except that the patient’s head is covered with a leather hood (so that there is no combat when two falcons come eye to eye) and his feet are tethered. The birds first arrive in the general check-up area and are assessed to see if they need further examination or a wing-replacement surgery. All discarded falcon feathers are collected from the desert so that they could be used during surgeries for injured falcons. Critically-ill falcons are placed in incubators, just like the ones designed for babies. Patients are regularly brought in from across the UAE and other Gulf countries.
The level of care lavished on the falcon might seem over the top to outsiders, but in the UAE, where the bird stands for national pride and tradition, it’s just another day in the life of the falcon.