Off Abu Dhabi’s coast, an island home to cats seeks aid

Jon Gambrell
Associated Press

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — The inhabitants of the desolate, man-made island off the coast of Abu Dhabi can’t be immediately seen among the breakwater rocks.

But as you draw close, their meows give them away.

A colony of stray cats has swelled on Lulu Island among its barren sandy hills and abandoned buildings that have fallen into disrepair, with the gleaming modern skyline of the United Arab Emirates as a background. The island has lain fallow and largely undeveloped since an ambitious plan by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer to turn it into a “leisure park” fell apart in the 1980s.

A volunteer group is trying to spay and neuter the island’s cats while caring for them in an abandoned modernist’s dream that seems to suit the Arabian Maus living there.

“The flora and the fauna all live in harmony with each other,” said Susan Aylott, who leads the aid group Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi . “Everything lives in harmony with the cats here.”

Lulu, which means “pearl” in Arabic, is a narrow island around 3 miles long running along the coast in front of Abu Dhabi’s downtown, protecting its shores from the sometimes choppy waters of the Persian Gulf. Niemeyer’s planned attractions, including an aquarium; conference center and marina were never built. A few other beach structures were built but lie unused and more recent plans to develop it never got off the ground.

In 2009, Abu Dhabi stopped ferries to the island amid an economic slowdown, and in theory it’s closed to the public, though sometimes people drop by on their own boats just to see it.

But sometime over the decades, cats made it across the narrow channel — about a half-mile wide — separating it from Abu Dhabi Theatre and the rest of the capital. Four years ago, they numbered 27, Aylott said. Now there’s over 165, mostly Arabian Maus, she said.

“You can’t just remove them,” she said on a recent visit to the 1.8-mile island. “This is their home.”

So Aylott and others are working to neuter and spay the cats. On a recent day, a bunch of cats dashed out for the food set out by Aylott and her volunteers — and some had docked ears, a sign they had undergone the procedure. But a short distance away, a kitten hid behind a water tank, meaning others remain fertile.

“We all want to help to make the vision of Abu Dhabi a better place — for the cats anyway,” Aylott said.

Yet there is always more work to do. Aylott’s brow at one point furrowed with a call to her mobile phone. Her group had plans to resettle a giant African tortoise at a local Abu Dhabi hotel because its owner, who kept it at home, is leaving the country.

“The tortoise is running late,” she said. “She’s dug a hole and is refusing to come out.”