She was brought to the hospital in a very sick condition. She was thin, bent and unable to even stand. The man who brought her in was worried that she would not survive. To make matters worse she seemed to be suffering from a disease that initially could not be diagnosed.

"I was really sad to see her in that condition,'' says Dr Margit Gabriele Muller. "But when I examined her, I noted a certain strength in her eyes. Though she was weak, I could see that her eyes were blazing with the will to survive.

"It's difficult to explain and one really has to experience it, but the way she was looking at us it seemed as if she was pleading for our help. It was an incredible feeling.''

Dr Muller and her staff did everything they could to help her get better and Dr Muller is happy to report that her patient is doing well. Not only has she gained weight, she is also able to stand now and whenever she receives a visit from the doctor she prances around trying to reach out to her. "It is wonderful to see the change," says Dr Muller.

The patient we are referring to is a 2-year-old falcon. But to Dr Muller, the director of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the falcons are like her children. They exhibit the same emotions and have the same needs and concerns that children do, she says. And Dr Muller believes in extending them the same kind of love and care.

On the day I visit the falcons at the display area in the Shaheen Conference Center, I feel a trifle amused as she introduces each bird by name.

She points out one that is tucking her wings in and crouching in a corner and says, "Her name is Farhan and she's very naughty! She will not allow Sarhan, the other falcon in the enclosure, to eat till she's had her fill." It reminds me of times when I've had to play the disciplinarian father with my squabbling kids.

"You may think all birds look the same, but they don't,'' says the vet. Everyone of them is different and they all exhibit different emotions. "Looking into their eyes is akin to looking into the eyes of a human being. Their emotions are reflected in their eyes. They can express feelings of pain, exhaustion, poor health, hunger... These birds are different from other birds and from each other and that's what makes them so fascinating. I have never come across two falcons behaving the same way - they really are like humans."

Feathered cap

Dr Margit Gabriele Muller is a woman of many colours. Apart from being a veterinarian who has specialised in falcon medicine, she is also a researcher, author, tourism facilitator and more.

The German national has even won the Abu Dhabi Award for Excellence, and a couple of international tourism awards for the hospital's initiatives.

Dr Muller balances all these roles with panache. But what she truly enjoys is nursing a sick or injured falcon back to health.

"I always loved birds. In fact, I had parrots as pets when I was a child," she says. "When I studied veterinary medicine I did not seriously think that I would become a doctor of falcons. It is extremely rare, very different, and very difficult as well.

"But once I got to know them... they are so fascinating. Though I've been working with falcons for 15 years now, they still fascinate me," she says.

Muller studied general veterinary medicine, and has a doctorate in falcon medicine. "Actually, the word falcon may be a misnomer; the area of study on the subject can be highly specific."

But how did a German-born vet land up in the UAE?

"It all started with an internship in Dubai with a small private clinic. After the internship, I returned to Germany to complete my PhD at Munich University. But I had an opportunity to come back to Abu Dhabi in 2001 and have been here since," she says.

"The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a unique institution; it's known worldwide and perhaps the only hospital that is devoted to falcons, because falcons are the passion of the Emirati, it's part of their heritage."

Moving to Abu Dhabi was a challenge for her, but as those who know Muller will testify, she is one person who is always ready to take on a challenge.

"Of course, coming to Abu Dhabi was a big step," she says. "I regarded it as a challenge - as a possibility for me to grow professionally because to work in such an environment is a unique experience. It is something that lets you grow tremendously. I also saw it as a chance to grow in my personal life - to experience a different environment.

"It is the best decision I have taken, and something that has definitely changed my personality. It brought me out of that European way of thinking; you know, you become much more understanding of different cultures, different ways of living and different religions.

"I have tried to give back to Abu Dhabi what I received from her. I would have never progressed to such an extent in Europe."Into the wild

For a falcon lover, there are few things more rewarding than seeing the captive birds being released into the wild, and Muller is no different. She is involved in the falcon release programme established by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The programme was launched to prevent the depletion in the number of wild falcons.

"Our hospital plays a very important part; we are in charge of the medical surveillance of the programme. This means if someone chances upon a wild falcon that is sick or if someone has a falcon that is old, he can donate it to the programme. We will rehabilitate the bird, see that it is medically fit and house it here. We also ensure that the birds are specially trained to survive in the wild before releasing them.''

"We only release falcons which we are absolutely sure will have chances of surviving in the wild. The ones that don't make the list remain with us in the hospital until the next release season.''

The falcon release programme has another spinoff. It helps the researchers gather information about their migratory patterns.

"The falcons are fitted with transmitters which give us information about their flight patterns and distances travelled. For instance, we found that one of the birds that we released this year had flown a distance of 2,500km. So, we're not only releasing female birds into the wild so that they can start breeding but we also receive valuable scientific data about their migration routes, about the time they need to fly from one place to another, flight patterns, breeding ground, and so on."

Muller doesn't take too kindly to views that falconry has no relevance to the present.

"In the past, falcons were used to hunt meat for the Bedouins to survive," she says. "Falconry was not a sport but a necessity for Bedouins to survive and so has never been regarded as a sport as it is in Europe.

"For Bedouins, falcons were part of the family. Now of course, falconers do not have to hunt for their food anymore, but the falcons are still a part of the family.''

She believes falconry is necessary because it helps Bedouins keep in touch with their culture and heritage. "Falconry is a sport that is practised in the desert. You have to train the falcons every morning and evening. This necessarily makes the falconer follow a lifestyle practised by his forefathers. When you train falcons, you spend time in the evening with friends discussing the day, how birds have been in training… so you go back to socialising the way it was done in olden times.''

In just a short span of time we have catapulted into a new era, she says. Another reason it's important to retain our roots: "because once you lose your roots, you lose your identity and your history".

Falcon findings

Muller's passion for falcons extends beyond treating them. She's researched falcon-related diseases, and has even identified a new disease, enterocytozoon bieneusi infection.

"When I came across this disease, there was no information available on it, so I decided to research it," she says. She discovered that it was a parasitic disease caused by a micro-organism. Muller also discovered that it was not limited to falcons.

"It is identical to a disease found in humans," she says. "What was also important was the discovery that there might be more connections between human and falcon diseases than previously thought. The finding could aid the development of treatment for both human beings as well as birds."

Muller was also in the forefront of the fight against containing the spread of avian flu in the UAE. "The hospital has played a vital role in setting up the action plan in Abu Dhabi which was then adopted all over the UAE."

With her unique position of being in the forefront of practising falcon medicine, it is only natural that Muller compile her knowledge in a book.

The recently released 450-page A Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine, is considered a definitive work on the subject.

"The hospital is really proud to be the leading facility in falcon medicine. We are attracting vets and student vets from all over the world for training."

With all these achievements to her credit, it would have been surprising if Muller had not won the Abu Dhabi Award. "I felt incredibly happy to receive the award last year," she says.

"It's definitely an incredible achievement. And for me it has a tremendous importance as it is an award from the community of Abu Dhabi, the people. The award is a way to let the community understand that every single person can make a difference. It does not matter in which field you are working or what gender or nationality you are - if you really try to do your best and you believe in what you are doing, you can makea difference."

Muller sees the hospital and its work going global in the next few years. "Already the hospital has become a brand in itself and many people know about it. For me personally, to work here is a great challenge and I am highly grateful because it is something that you cannot do anywhere else in the world.

"This work is still fascinating for me even after so many years and it is getting even better because the more you see the more you learn."

Falcon tourism

Ever heard of falcon tourism? The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has had a successful stab at it - through Dr Muller's enterprise. "When the hospital started to grow and we became the leading falcon medicine institution, it created a lot of interest in the media. With all the coverage people apart from the veterinary world started to hear about this falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi," says Dr Muller.

Soon they had overseas tourists. "At first we were at a loss as to how we should accommodate them. Then I thought it's good that people are interested in falcons. This is the culture of this country, so we had to find a way of opening up our services to the general public."

The hospital opened up to tourists in 2007.

"We started guided tours of our facility, and tourists had to book in advance through our website," says Muller.

During the week, there are two tours at 10am and 2pm. It is closed for the weekends and on public holidays.

"Every day I have a group of hospitalised falcons that I have to check up on, not new cases, so we use these examinations as a demonstration," says Muller. "So I can do my job, the falcon gets examined and doesn't have to wait, and the tourists can see what we are doing here.

"The tours have been incredibly successful. We started in 2007 with two programmes a week, and now we are doing two tours daily. We won a very prestigious international tourism award in January. We have even been nominated as a finalist in a world tourism award created by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin group."