Foreigners Leave Kuwait, but Pets Find New Home

Times Staff Writer

Charlie is suffering a case of war jitters, Tabatha is taking things in stride despite her advanced age, and Zoomer is well-positioned to watch the action.

As more U.S. troops pour into Kuwait, expatriates in growing numbers are heading out of the country -- and leaving their pets behind.

Some of these dogs, cats and birds of war are finding temporary shelter in the recently opened International Veterinary Hospital, located near a Patriot antimissile battery on a stretch of desert toward the Saudi border, where manager Margaret McLuskey has vowed to watch her charges until the very end.

"I have a commitment to my animals," she said. "They'll have to take me out at gunpoint."

The goodbyes can be heart-wrenching, and reassuring departing pet owners is a big part of McLuskey's job. Many owners put off their farewell until minutes before they board a plane, eyes filled with tears, after a final hug, one last affectionate tousle of the ears.

Rarely spoken of, but never far from their minds, are the question of what their pets may face and the guilt at leaving them behind.

Kuwait is calm, and most in the West expect a quick U.S. and British march north to Baghdad. But war is unpredictable, and the reports of possible poison gas, biological weapons and bombs certainly don't help.

"The idea of leaving her behind bothers me terribly. I think the world of her, and I'd die if anything happened to her," said Marcia Chadwick, a member of the British Embassy staff and owner of a ginger-colored cat named Poppet. "Margaret's said [that] if there are chemical weapons, she has injections and can put them down. Better that than having them suffer."

Kathy McGregor, a Kuwait resident of 26 years and the owner of two dogs and a bird, recalls the pets abandoned during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including dogs left in apartments with nothing but bits of food on the floor.

Despite the danger pets may face, many expatriates feel they have little choice but to leave the animals. Any exodus may last only a few weeks, they say, and flying pets in and out in a short period of time only intensifies their stress -- not to mention the quarantines they face.

To bridge the distance, many owners send regular e-mails and request updates.

"Really miss my dogs," writes the owner of Tara and Abi, a Yorkshire and a West Highland white. "Hope they're behaving and happy."

The hospital and kennel do their best to give the animals all the comforts of home and then some. Dogs get several walks a day, playtime and the same food and medicines they're used to. Cats have a similar regime. There's someone with the animals around the clock. There are air conditioning and piped-in music -- "mostly easy listening" -- and plans to install televisions in each kennel.

"We'll show them films of other dogs, television, shows like 'Animal Planet,' that sort of thing," McLuskey said. "No CNN. We don't want to frighten them more."

In the event Kuwait becomes the target of a chemical or biological attack, the kennel area is sealed. The hospital is also relatively far from Kuwait City -- perhaps its best defense.

Pet supplies are running low in the kingdom, says McLuskey, a 10-year resident of Kuwait, because most inbound ships and planes are loaded with war materiel. The facility has a six-week supply of food, however.

"After that, we'll cook them chicken," she said.

Her charges are taking to their surroundings in different ways. Charlie, a medium-sized, high-strung part German shepherd in the 6-foot-square kennel nearest the hallway, doesn't take easily to strangers or change, and barks at the least disturbance. Tabatha, over in the cat area, is 17 years old, ancient by cat standards, but seems in good spirits. And Zoomer, a bird, has a spot in McLuskey's office.

The animal center, the first in Kuwait with international standards, opened last month and has about two dozen boarders at around $17 a day apiece, with more expected soon.

Although the price might not seem like much to Americans, spending that amount to have a pet walked, housed and coddled seems beyond the pale to many Kuwaitis, in a region where house pets are relatively recent.

One factor behind the different view of pets is religion. Under Sharia, or Islamic law, dogs are considered unclean. Any contact with their noses or mouths in particular requires a cleansing ceremony before prayer. While traditions are changing rapidly, this has colored the view toward (Western) man's best friend.

In addition, the unforgiving desert and tribal lifestyle meant that animals were supposed to earn their keep by, for instance, herding sheep or safeguarding possessions, rather than lollygagging on the couch watching television with the family.

Ownership of house pets increased noticeably in the wake of the 1991 war, however, as many Kuwaitis came to identify more with the American lifestyle.

"If you go to upper-class neighborhoods, you see many people walking dogs nowadays," said Ali Tarrah, dean of Kuwait University's College of Social Sciences. "But it's still not like the U.S., where a dog is part of your life."

When Kuwaitis hear about Americans and Britons paying thousands of dollars to fly their dogs around, groom them and care for them, many see it as an attempt to fill the vacuum caused by the loss of an extended family, he added.

"When we look at Americans, a lot of people think it's because they don't have a good family life, with many living alone, older people with just their cat," Tarrah said.

Although most of the hospital's clients are expats, there's a growing market for high-end pet care among Kuwaitis who have become keen on dogs and cats, as well as among longtime lovers of falcons and pigeons.

Kuwaitis also have a tradition of breeding Salukis, a so-called coursing hound that doesn't kill its prey but rather neutralizes it until its master arrives.

"The Sharia has a special dispensation for hunting dogs," said Lubna Saif Abbas, a manager with Bartercard, a trade network, and owner of seven of the breed. "The Bedouin will say, 'That's not a dog.' They consider it something different altogether."

With the clock ticking toward war, McLuskey hopes any conflict will be wrapped up quickly so the animals can be reunited with their owners.

"We'll just have to wait until whatever happens happens," she said.

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