I got up at 7am and made some English Breakfast tea. It was boiling as I got dressed and I sipped it while looking through the Introduction to the City book, before going down to the buffet offered at Talay. I sat facing the window and enjoyed a large meal over a course of 30 minutes. I went to the lobby to check out and collect my Starwood points that will credit to my account in 48 hours. I checked Facebook for ten minutes and then went outside for a taxi.
I told the driver, “Falcon Hospital” and the guy was on the phone when the outdoor concierge and another employee from the hotel were trying to give him directions. They said I should get another taxi and escorted me to the one pulling up, “He knows where he’s going”. I debated going to Al Forsan that has paintball, a racetrack, equestrian activities, and shooting, but that seems it would be more fun to do with someone. This way I will have the largest hospital that treats the fastest bird in the world and the fastest roller coaster on the planet in the largest indoor theme park to add to my to-done list.
The driver tells me that a lot of the newer drivers don’t know where the hospital is – in a patch of desert past the airport – probably because so many people are concerned with rides where I’m capable of walking. We arrive at the hospital at 9:50, I pay the driver 70 dirham, and walk inside to ask the length of the tour. The driver wanted to wait, but the man said he would call me another taxi, so I don’t have to pay 30 dirham an hour for the two-hour wait time. I paid my AED170 tour fee with a 200 dirham bill and sat in the lounge area waiting for change and the tour to start.
Waiting with me was a mother from Greece, who speaks seven languages, and her three kids, the daughter being the eldest, and three men waiting on birds. I looked at the falcons, sitting on turf covered benches, and smiled. I love watching them look around with their eyes covered. As long as they can’t see their neighbor, they won’t attack them – and these birds aren’t cheap. But when at home, with four or more possible roommates, they’re housed together to keep them friendly.
We are joined by a couple from Germany, the wife more bilingual than the husband, and a couple from Australia. I’m impressed with the amount of Deutsch the guide could speak, but there was one translation issue as to whether the word meant ‘to eat’ or ‘to reproduce’. I could understand the confusion as one word sounded like food and the other the process of cooking, not mating. We got an introduction in the museum – with pictures on one wall and birds in jars on another. We were offered juice during this time.
Our guide was humorous as he informed us of the three main species of falcon (also the national symbol) used in this area – Peregrine, Saker, and the Gyrfalcon. We were taught that the falcons live on mountains but migrate here, only eat fresh meat, and can carry twice their body weight. But the most interesting to me was learning that these birds are important enough to get official passports (sans photo because of annual moulting) so they can fly first class with their handlers to other countries where using them for hunting has yet to be outlawed.
We are brought back into the clinic and shown the different species and told that female birds are preferred for their larger size. A falcon is brought over and a plastic cone slipped loosely over her head, with room for gas to escape, but enough to make her pass out. The older boy thought they were killing the bird and his mother had to convince him otherwise. Now the doctor can trim talons and beak and load the strong little legs with plenty of vaccine fluids. These are powerful birds and I wouldn’t want to mess with them without drugs, a leather glove, or the voice of a Disney princess.
We are shown the wingspan and I’m able to feel the bird’s tender heartbeat, the smoothness of its feathers, and the softness of her feet protected by newly trimmed nails. Her minimum speed is over twice as fast as a cheetah at 260 km/hr. Falcons are used for hunting as well as beauty shows. We get a quick look at the bird’s eyelids, ears, and mouth before she starts to wake up again and we are shown how her mask is put on. I thought it would be difficult, but they have been well-trained – enough to deliver prey live in return for meat of their own.
Next we are shown the drawers full of ‘prosthetic’ feathers – ones that have been found from moulting birds. The doctors are able to attach them via needle on the top half (thin part of the feather) and with a chopstick and glue on the bottom half (where some people make pens). This only lasts until the falcons moult and get new ones annually, but each feather plays an important role in agile flight and finding the best match in weight, length, etc. is vital in maintaining the birds ability to fly.
We get to hold a trained falcon – one that doesn’t have to wear a mask and doesn’t feel the need to make your face the next meal – with a glove on and then a tiny one, half the size of the other, on our bare hand. Once the guy taking photos figured out how to hold the shutter button down until it clicked on my camera he took a few pictures of me from different angles. Once everyone had a turn it was time to watch the feathered falcon tear chunks off the bald, raw bird the girl was holding until her arm got tired.
We passed an operating room, complete with machines that go Bing! on our way to the trophy wall with awards from around the world on the hospital’s quality and excellence of treating these expensive birds. Back out into the bright sun to see three local owls, in their shaded pen, that have been injured and live here now. We were taken by golf cart to the moulting room to see five falcons hanging out in their air-conditioned/with open window space. The guide ask that we not get to close while in the same room as them and had to scold the mom for setting a bad example.
Back on the cart, the guide tells me he’s from Turkey and is going back in a month. I told him he should give my husband and I a tour, but then he quickly disappeared after showing us the last part of the tour – a golden banquet hall, a museum of photos and animals no longer living, a gift counter, and a photo opportunity with a live falcon, a stuffed camel, and you in traditional dress. One of the taxidermy treats in the museum is a gazelle, whose species is likely extinct, but I was lucky enough to spot its two cousins beside shrubbery behind the tall fences to protect them from the desert roads.
There is a cab outside waiting for me. I use the facilities and am in the backseat by 11:45 and on my way to Yas Island where Sajjad will drop me off 25 minutes later.