We talk to the doctor who traded in the stethoscope to become the voice of animal welfare in Abu Dhabi
“I often joke we get paid in cat food.”
Surrounded by cats at her home – 29 of them to be precise – there’s nothing odd about this statement considering what Dr Susan Aylott does.
A medical professional turned animal advocate, Susan gave up her career of healing two-legged beings in favour of focusing on four-legged ones instead.
“I’d always wanted to become a vet since childhood, but instead I went into medicine,” Susan explains.
“But 18 months ago something shifted. I came over here after finishing my PhD to look for work, and every time I went for a job interview, I came back with a cat. “It was then that I realised there’s a big problem here and that something needed to be done – and that we need to deal with it from the source,” she adds.
“That’s when I found my focus again with animals, and that’s what drives me.”
That focus led Susan to set up community organisation Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi (AWAD).
Established in 2015, the non-profit and unfunded group is one of the strongest voices for animal advocacy in the capital.
From feeding and sterilisation programmes for the capital’s feline stray population to dealing with cases of abuse and educating the public on social responsibility, Susan and a band of volunteers work around the clock to try and help mitigate a spiralling animal welfare problem.
“The sad thing is that the stray cat population is exploding here in Abu Dhabi,” Susan comments.
“The numbers are out of control; kittens are having kittens and we’re seeing unhealthy cats.
“That’s not a nice image for animal welfare, or Abu Dhabi. We’re a first-world country, but the animal welfare side of things isn’t there yet.”
For all AWAD can achieve, the movement really starts, and ends, with the community.
By working with schools and businesses to get involved and help in a practical way, Susan is looking to a future where everyone takes their social responsibility seriously.
“What we’re aiming for is a 66 percent decline in the stray population over seven years,” she says.
“It’s achievable, but for that, we need to actively involve the community.”
One of the ways in which AWAD accomplishes that is with its community outreach programme.
Schools, hotels and businesses across the capital have signed up, with food and sterilisation programmes in place to bring the population under control, while individual volunteers help to run one of AWAD’s 200 feeding stations.
And although things are moving in the right direction, Susan knows there’s more to be done to combat the problem, as well as combatting the human indifference to it.
“Is it hard? It can be. Not everyone likes animals,” she acknowledges.
“We want to make a change in their vision and way of dealing with animals. We want people to know that we should have compassion, we should have respect and we should empathise. We try to show people that helping these animals is a good thing.
“There’s never really been a way that’s easy to help,” she adds.
“But whether you spend five minutes or five days a week to lend your time, everyone has a skillset to use towards this cause.
“For each private feeding station, we need at least five members of the public to give up their time,” Susan says.
“These are people that have never met before, but they have one goal, and that’s to look after these animals. They’re working together to make the community better.”
While community forms the heart and soul of AWAD’s work, Susan says there’s one thing that can ensure it continues in the future: education.
“It’s about wanting to make this country better for future generations,” she reflects.
“We need to educate children to help push this forwards. “And it’s not just for the animals,” she adds.
“It’s for the environment; it’s all part of looking after the Earth for the future.”
With recent laws imposing hefty punishments for animal abuse cases, Susan is optimistic, but cautions that without education and awareness, things can’t improve by themselves.
“These laws are a huge step forward for the UAE, but the problem is that people aren’t always aware of what’s really going on,” she says.
“We need clear guidelines. People need to know what constitutes animal abuse, and how to report it. That comes with education.
“It’s never been about money,” Susan adds thoughtfully.
“It’s compassion. If we can teach that, we can empower people to help animals and to do the right thing.”
As one of Susan’s many resident cats – all up for adoption – leaps onto her lap while we talk, we can’t help but ask: Does she consider herself a crazy cat lady? She laughs.
“Less of the crazy,” she says, absentmindedly giving the interloping feline a fond scratch behind the ears.
“I just love this country and I want to see it become the best it can be – and animal welfare is one of the missing pieces.”
WORDS Camille Hogg