DOHA, Qatar – As soon as the clinic opens, the patients and their guardians begin streaming in.
In the waiting room, the mood is a mix of anxiety and ennui. Some visitors pace the marble floors. Others sit on couches, absent-mindedly leafing through magazines. The most frustrated press forward to harass the receptionists, demanding to be seen at once.
This morning is like most others at the clinic, the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, which, as its name makes plain, is an entire facility dedicated to treating one member of the raptor family. Tucked in a corner of the main square in Doha’s historic old city, it is a medical facility like few others.
Inside its walls — across the tiny bird tracks marking the entry, through the shiny glass doors holding back the air conditioning, beyond the waiting room with the couches and the chrome perches and the man who collects bird excrement off the floor in case it needs testing — no expense has been spared to treat falcons in a country that reveres them like no other member of the animal kingdom.
In Qatar, as in several other countries in the Gulf, the falcon fulfills a variety of roles, from family pet to status symbol to racing competitor. But falcons also provide an important and valued link to the region’s ancient Bedouin culture.
Today, the most sought-after birds are worth millions of dollars to the men — and it is always men who handle the falcons — who plow fortunes into a centuries-old pastime in the world’s richest country.
But sometimes those birds are injured or fall ill. And that is how those responsible for them wind up at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.
In an exam room, three medics huddled around the patient. Bright LED lamps above their heads bathed the table in light. A full-body X-ray glowed on a screen in one corner of the room, while a device monitoring vital signs supplied a soundtrack of steady beeps.
The patient’s immediate problem — an acute case of tilting head — was quickly identified. The issue now was working out the cause. Injury? Influenza? Something worse? There is no shortage of high-tech to help track down the problem.
Prasoon Ibrahim, 38, has worked at the hospital for eight years, but he continues to be surprised whenever he stops to think of the resources at his disposal. He listed in rapid-fire staccato all the treatment options and special equipment offered by the hospital: blood and kidney tests; feather replacements; endoscopies. Speaking faster and faster, he eventually stopped to draw a breath and add, “We have everything.”
Ibrahim, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, worked in a regular hospital before taking up his current post. And like most of his colleagues, he said, he had never worked anywhere with the breadth of state-of-the-art technology he now has at his disposal.
“In my lab, I saw a gene sequencer for the first time,” he said, his eyes widening.
Set over multiple floors, the facility, subsidized by Qatar’s ruler, treats about 150 falcons a day. Most of the birds come for checkups or to have what staff members nonchalantly describe as a mani-pedi, the falcon equivalent of a manicure in which its beak and talons are sharpened while under general anesthesia. Others arrive to have radio transmitters and GPS devices fitted so their owners can keep track of the expensive birds when they take them out to hunt.
The most serious work — orthopedic surgery to mend broken bones that in the wild would mean certain death — takes place in an inpatient unit housed on another floor.
Specialists for everything
In the general treatment area, which is off-limits to anyone but staff members and their patients, technicians are split into specialized sections, with the central space reserved for a group of workers manning a bank of computers. They analyze blood and fecal samples as well as throat swabs under high-powered microscopes that display images on giant screens. Anything untoward is marked for the attention of a handful of senior medics who patrol the area in green scrubs.
At the far end, another group is busy trying to replace a missing tail feather on a peregrine.
“For each species the pattern is different, and for each feather the pattern is different,” said technician Abdul Nasser Parolil. He reached to open a set of drawers, revealing a broad selection of feathers of varying lengths, colors and patterns.
“We have to find the right pattern,” he said.
As with many institutions in Qatar, there is a strict hierarchy when it comes to the falcon hospital’s waiting room. While there is a numbered ticketing system, there are ways to cut the line: Qatari royals bearing falcons are treated as a priority, then Qatari nationals and finally foreigners, usually South Asian domestic staff members sent on behalf of their employers.
One of the people waiting this morning was Shagul Hameed, 27, who has spent five years tending to a falcon owned by a member of the al-Thani Qatari royal family. One of his acquaintances joined the conversation to express amazement at the amount of money and time owners were willing to spend on their falcons. But what Hameed said he found most surprising was the affection some owners gave their falcons: the care by millionaires, and perhaps even billionaires, who rose at dawn to accompany their sick falcons to the hospital.
“The way they look after their kids, they look after their falcons,” Hameed said, before correcting himself. “Actually, if their child was ill, they would send the driver, the maid or the wife to the doctor.
“But if the falcon is sick, the man of the house will go himself.”