▶ Emi­rati Afra Al Dha­heri has to bal­ance busi­ness and char­ity, writes Daniel San­der­son

The National - News - - NEWS EMIRATES -

When Afra Al Dha­heri said she wanted to open a lux­ury ho­tel for pets, not ev­ery­body took her se­ri­ously.

So she hit the streets of Abu Dhabi, ask­ing strangers to fill in sur­veys to prove there was de­mand. She drew up a busi­ness plan and asked the Khal­ifa Fund, which sup­ports Emi­rati en­trepreneur­s, for a large loan. At first, she says, fund man­agers were sur­prised at her idea and of­fered only a tenth of what she asked for.

But nearly eight years on, she em­ploys al­most 40 staff, has es­tab­lished an award-win­ning ve­teri­nary clinic and is plan­ning to set up a se­cond, far larger op­er­a­tion from a farm.

“A lot of peo­ple ex­pected me to last a year or two,” Ms Al Dha­heri says. “They just thought I was some spoiled, young, rich Emi­rati who wanted to show off her hobby. But I’m not that type of per­son – I was very de­ter­mined.

“When I started the busi­ness peo­ple didn’t re­alise I had taken out a loan, so it was a big re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

After fur­ther dis­cus­sions, the Khal­ifa Fund was per­suaded to pro­vide close to the Dh3 mil­lion she had ap­plied for.

With sup­port from her older sis­ter, who also took out a loan to help, Ms Al Dha­heri was able to open Cloud 9 Pet Ho­tel and Care from a villa in Khal­ifa City.

It is a labour of love for the 33-year-old busi­ness owner, who also of­fers pet groom­ing, train­ing, dog walk­ing, pet sit­ting and even a ser­vice to help peo­ple over­come an­i­mal pho­bias.

As well as be­ing trusted to care for cus­tomers’ pets, she has taken in count­less mis­treated or aban­doned an­i­mals that she tries to find sta­ble homes for.

The cen­tre has be­come a sanc­tu­ary for an­i­mals in­clud­ing ducks, rep­tiles and ex­otic birds that Ms Al Dha­heri did not have the heart to turn away. Be­tween 70 and 80 res­cue an­i­mals are cur­rently be­ing cared for, in ad­di­tion to “day care” guests and those fill­ing the 92 dog and 27 cat ho­tel rooms – which are usu­ally close to ca­pac­ity.

Among them is Meeko, a rac­coon who was left by an owner who no longer wanted him. He has spent so much time play­ing with the cats that staff be­lieve he now thinks he is a fe­line.

Char­lie, a choco­late-coloured Labrador, likes to col­lect bricks.

As 25 other dogs swamp Ms Al Dha­heri when she en­ters their large out­door ex­er­cise pen, Char­lie dili­gently guards his bro­ken breeze block, bark­ing at any­one who ap­proaches.

Yzma, a blue par­rot, was booked into Cloud 9 by her own­ers while they went on a long hol­i­day. But she fell in love with Kronk, a male of the same species. So now Yzma lives at Cloud 9 too, with her old own­ers oc­ca­sion­ally tak­ing her home for a week­end.

Ms Al Dha­heri owns 13 dogs her­self, nine of which come with her to work every day.

“It was 12, but I got another one last month,” she says. “I live close by, and I have a big car.”

Asked where a pair of tur­tles came from, she shrugs. “Peo­ple didn’t want them and we had a plas­tic pool. We’re build­ing a pond for them.”

She took in a preg­nant fer­ret – it had nine ba­bies. Four were re­homed, and the rest are still there. There are now 13 Cloud 9 fer­rets, fed an ex­pen­sive diet of chicken livers and hearts.

Her al­tru­ism has cost her money, Ms Al Dha­heri ad­mits, and she is forced to turn some an­i­mals away.

“I have the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing sure my em­ploy­ees are se­cure and pay­ing all the bills,” she says. “When we say ‘no’ it’s not be­cause we don’t want to help. It breaks our heart.”

She is now look­ing into set­ting up a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion to care for aban­doned or un­wanted an­i­mals.

But de­spite the re­sources she spends on car­ing for an­i­mals with nowhere to go, the busi­ness is still per­form­ing. Her sis­ter, and the Khal­ifa Fund, have been paid back, and she is now look­ing to ex­pand.

Cloud 9 has even be­come a mini tourist des­ti­na­tion, with Ms Al Dha­heri build­ing up a strong so­cial me­dia pro­file; many of her fol­low­ers, es­pe­cially chil­dren, turn up unan­nounced to meet her and the an­i­mals.

“My plan now is to buy a farm,” she says, with room for pet pools, off-leash gar­dens, a cafe and more vol­un­teer­ing and com­mu­nity projects.

“It’s just a mat­ter of find­ing the right spot,” she says.

“All the res­cues are why it took us so long to de­cide to open another branch. But even if it takes another 10 years, as long as I am help­ing those an­i­mals I am happy.”

Vic­tor Besa / The Na­tional

Busi­ness­woman and an­i­mal wel­fare ac­tivist Afra Al Dha­heri with one of the many crea­tures at Cloud 9

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