Until a little over a year ago, buying a big cat in the United Arab Emirates was easier than buying a car. “You used to be able to go on the Craigslist of Dubai or go to the animal market and buy a lion, easy,” says Dubai-based veterinarian Hollis Stewart. In this oil-rich, less-than-50-year-old country, Dr. Stewart says exotic animals became a highly sought-after status symbol, one with little regulatory oversight; they could be purchased casually at a pet store or on the black market. The social-media accounts of young Emirati millionaires were rife with cheetahs on leashes strutting next to Ferraris, jaguars climbing on Jaguars, and chimps lolling around in lavishly upholstered family rooms. “It’s also fairly close to Asia, so a lot of these jungle animals were very easy to smuggle in or import,” Dr. Stewart says. When the New York City native first moved to Dubai four years ago, she says, “you’d go to the pet store and see a koala for adoption, maybe a slow loris.”
Exotic pets were finally banned in the UAE at the beginning of 2017, with a new law meant to protect public safety and animal welfare. Now if you want to keep an exotic animal on private property, you need to apply for a zoo license, allow for regular visits from government animal-welfare officers, and set up appropriate enclosures and feeding regimens. But even with these new hoops to jump through, there are still plenty of regular patients for Dr. Stewart, who specializes in the medical care and training of undomesticated animals. She’s a vet and wildlife manager at a private hospital, so a routine day for her might mean going from leash-training a cheetah to examining an ostrich to bottle-feeding a tiny, endangered gazelle.
An animal lover since birth, Dr. Stewart did stints in Namibia and Hawaii before ending up in the UAE. She says she was shocked to see pet hyena cubs when she first arrived but now considers them totally routine (“They’re regional!”). Most of the exotic pets she treats at the hospital are actually exorbitant gifts. “It’s the equivalent of champagne or a fancy car; it’s something that wasn’t cheap, which very few people have,” she explains. “It’s also very bad in Arab culture to give away a gift. You have to keep it to say thanks, but it’s not like you chose it.” This gives her work extra urgency. “My job is just to give the animals as much as I can physically provide for them.”
When Dr. Stewart isn’t on call, she travels; since moving to Dubai she’s been to Jordan, Oman, and Kyrgyzstan, among many other places. She goes for hikes, or does water sports such as paddleboarding and sailing. Even on her days off, though, she assists with sea-turtle and greyhound rescue. Animals of all kinds are the defining feature of her life. “There was never another option,” says the vet. “I was born and I just had this connection to and obsession with animals. It brings me such immense joy.”
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With all these rare species around, Dr. Stewart jokes that cats and dogs are actually the hardest to treat. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what to do with classic animals,” she says.