Farm worker Hussain Nisaret and veterinarian Dr. Hollis Stewart hold down an ostrich to check its eye at a farm belonging to the Dubai royal family.

The Expat Vet to Emirati Royalty

Tending to an angry ostrich, a trained cheetah, a pregnant tortoise, a baby owl, a deaf pug, and a tiny gazelle are all in a day’s work.
Farm worker Hussain Nisaret and veterinarian Dr. Hollis Stewart hold down an ostrich to check its eye at a farm belonging to the Dubai royal family.

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.”

Duma, a six-year-old cheetah belonging to the Dubai royal family, reacts to a shot of sedative. The cheetah, whom Dr. Stewart calls her “boyfriend,” is one of her favorite patients. “When Duma first came, he was really scared of everyone. So I put a lot of time and effort into getting him to calm down,” she says. “Cheetahs have a skittish nature. They tend to run away from things.”
Dr. Stewart examines Duma after his sedation. Today he needs to get some vaccinations, but normally she would treat him without sedation—a point she has worked hard to reach. “With wild animals, it’s important to keep relationships with them so I’m not always doing checkups when I see them—so it’s not always negative,” she explains. “When I first met Duma, I would just sit in his cage and read a book, or take him for a walk.”

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.

Dr. Stewart sits in her car with her adopted animals: Whooo, a one-month-old desert eagle owl; Pug, an eight-year-old deaf pug; and Ida, a two-month-old mountain gazelle. (Azraq, her sphynx cat, is not pictured here.) Pug is Stewart’s “dog nurse—I wouldn’t be able to have all these animals if she wasn’t as calm and good as she is.” In the past, Pug has lived with two foxes, another gazelle, an ostrich, monkeys, and kangaroos.
Abdusammad Pothancheri, an animal handler at a royal farm, holds the hand of Pooh-Bear, a Eurasian brown bear. He raised Pooh-Bear and makes physical contact with him multiple times a day. "You have to keep up their interaction, enrichment, and exercise," says Dr. Stewart. "If you don't, that's when you get a frustrated animal that could lash out."
Dr. Stewart feeds goat’s milk to baby Ida, the mountain gazelle. “She came from the wild, and her mother wasn’t nursing her,” she says. Dr. Stewart plans to take care of Ida until she’s ready to be weaned, at which point she’ll be released into a protected wildlife area.
“What I love is hopping from species to species—going from a bird to a snake to a camel to a horse,” says Dr. Stewart. Here, she holds Pokey, a desert hedgehog.

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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After working with so many exotic animals, Dr. Stewart says, she has a “soft spot for the basic dog or wolf: you get the lick and the tail wag—you can read that basic behavior and know that everything’s okay.” Above, the vet plays with two Arabian wolves.
Dr. Stewart’s desert eagle owl, Whooo. The owl’s mother was raised by humans, and most tame owls won’t breed because, the vet says, “they think humans are their mates.” Whooo’s mother was an exception to the rule.
Pug had pneumonia when she was young, and her skull didn’t fuse properly. “I think other animals realize she’s not all there mentally,” says Dr. Stewart. “They’re not aggressive to her, because they don’t see her as a threat. Whatever I’ve thrown into the mix, it’s never been a big problem.” One recent evening, she discovered Whooo and Pug snuggling in the same bed.
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.

Dr. Stewart examines an X-ray of a pregnant tortoise. She has a soft spot for turtles and tortoises of all kinds but finds them “a little boring” to work with as a doctor. Finding solid data for other, rarer animals is much more challenging; there isn’t a lot of published veterinary literature on undomesticated animals. “I’m always researching. I have to extrapolate information and put it toward a species, but species differ so much,” she says. “We can take blood, but then it’s like, ‘What’s normal?’”
Anif Changarangchola, who works at a royal veterinary clinic, checks an X-ray of Apollo, a tortoise suspected to be carrying eggs.
Dr. Stewart holds Apollo.
Dr. Stewart checks camels at a farm in the desert, making sure they are free of ticks.
A peacock belonging to the Dubai royal family at a royal farm. Peacocks wander freely around the surrounding neighborhood, and it is illegal to kill them.
Farm worker Hussain Nisaret handles an ostrich. Dr. Stewart says working with ostriches can be scary: “I’ve been kicked by an ostrich, and you only have to be kicked once to realize you never want to be kicked again.” She’s cautious about working with dangerous animals in general. “As much as I love them, I know my limits and their limits and their strength,” she says. “I try not to let the connection I might feel with the animal change what I do.”
Dr. Stewart and her pet sphynx cat, Azraq (“blue” in Arabic). Azraq has feline coronavirus, a respiratory disease, and she isn’t supposed to be around other cats. Other species are fair game, though. “The cat wants the gazelle’s milk—if I’m bottle-feeding Ida, she gets jealous.”
Ida, the baby gazelle, walks the halls at Dr. Stewart’s clinic. “I definitely have bad days,” says the vet. “I don’t like seeing animals sick, and I’m very sensitive to their pain. But that’s extra motivation to do the best I can for them.”
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