At a first glance Nad Al Sheba Veterinary and Avian Hospital could be in Harley Street.

There is an X-ray up on a wall-mounted lightbox, an abundance of shiny metal surfaces and plenty of impressive machinery.

Down the corridor a woman in a lab coat is even doing something fiddly with a pipette and glass tubes.

The waiting room, though, has the feel more of Folsom Prison infirmary after a riot.

Even the hoods over their heads cannot disguise the brooding menace of a line of gyr falcons - each a solid 1,600g of pure quail-mincing predator.

Working with raptors

Nor is this intimidating aspect in any way misleading.

A hatching of pale lines scarred into the tanned forearm of Mirjam Ricarda Hampel evidence the risks in working with raptors.

Yet her affection for falcons has drawn her from Germany to the UAE, where she has become one of the few females working in a challenging and - on the surface - unrewarding field.

"They are not like parrots that need love as well as treatment," says Christopher Lloyd, Hampel's British colleague.

But while he takes charge of the other animals that are treated here - particularly parrots and reptiles - Hampel is far happier with falcons. She freely admits her choice is an odd one.

"Very, very few just specialise in birds - so if you specialise in falcons, it is very unusual," she says.

Yet the appeal is also remarkable. "They are so beautiful, so elegant, so self-confident," she says.

"They are dangerous, but that is also part of the fascination. They are something wild, not like a dog or an animal that follows you."


Indeed, in this relationship the attractive 33-year-old has had to do all the chasing.

Her fascination dates from 2001 when she treated a Lanner falcon with a broken wing. While still a student she sought out an internship in one of Dubai's private falcon facilities.

After completing her doctorate there, she returned to Germany to work at a falcon-breeding farm before returning to the UAE for her current position.

Tech support

At Nad Al Sheba she and Lloyd are now melding the techniques and technology of modern medicine with one of the UAE's ancient defining traditions.

"My breeder in Germany was one of the biggest, but there was nothing like the sophisticated equipment we have here," she says. "We couldn't take X-rays. There was no camera in the endoscope."

To a vet, a falcon is a bit like what Michael Jackon is to a plastic surgeon. For instance, the largest, priciest and scariest of the clinic's falcon patients are gyrs.

They cost up to $40,000 (Dh147,120), so they are an investment that owners are eager to protect. Yet their health is as delicate as egg-shell.

The sheer bulk of a gyr brings one common complaint. All that heft puts a considerable burden on a creature's claws ? which are prone to a condition called bumblefoot if the perch material is inappropriate.

The other leading problem - aspergillosis - is a fungal lung infection exacerbated by the inherent tricksiness of bringing a Siberian creature to the Gulf.

"Even Germany is too warm for them," says Hampel.

The checks

As well as running checks on the blood and faeces of a sickly bird, Hampel and Lloyd can knock a bird out with interfluerine gas and view the inside of its lungs in queasy detail on a monitor.

"When you work with birds of prey it is very important to be quiet, relaxed and patient," says Hampel. "They pay attention to everything. They can feel if you are nervous or insecure."

In high season in August and September, the hospital treats as many as 50 falcons each day. The team is branching out into sports medicine with a study into the effect of exercise on a falcon's heart.

Currently, Hampel is also investigating amyloidosis, a mysterious progressive condition that resembles Alzheimer's.

Outside working hours, her obsession with the falcon world finds expression in training her own bird, a gyr-peregrine hybrid falcon she nursed back to health from a near-fatal sinusitis.

Theirs is a long association and, at least on his side, a family one.

Very attached

"I couldn't normally get this close," says Hampel, who allows his beak to brush her cheek.

"But he has been imprinted to me because I have had him since he was a few days old. He thinks of me as his mummy."

Not even Maeuschen - whose name, rather inappropriately, means 'little mouse' - is exactly cuddly. "The fascination is that they are absolutely independent," she says.

"Even with my bird, he doesn't need me at all."

But his "imprinting" may come in handy during the annual 3-day speed trial - a test of how fast a bird will fly from a perch over 360 metres to its owner.

This month, Hampel would like to set a precedent in a hitherto male sport by competing herself.

"Because he thinks I am his mummy, there is no way he will fly away," she says.

"When he flies to me it's somehow a very good feeling. For just a couple of minutes you feel like you actually dominate the animal."

Breeds of falcon

The majority of birds flown in Dubai are hybrids - predominantly gyr/peregrines. Usually female birds are preferred - they are bigger and the houbara is a sizeable prey.

Gyr Falcon
The largest falcon, native to sub-arctic regions.

Saker Falcon
Sometimes known as desert falcons. They migrate to North Africa in winter and spend summer months in Eastern Europe and Asia. Their special selling point as hunters is that they attack both on the ground and in air.

Peregrine Falcon
A smaller breed of falcon with many subspecies spread around the world. They are spectacular in the air but rarely attack birds on the ground.

Lanner Falcon
A smaller bird native to Africa and coastal regions of the Mediterranean. They are easy to train and popular as a first bird but not often used in this region.

SAFE: All falcons that have been at risk of exposure are tested for bird flu, says Christopher Lloyd of Nad Al Shiba Hospital.

"The test is very sensitive and we test all our birds on a regular basis. We test any bird as soon as it comes back from a hunting trip or from exposure to other birds," he says. So far, the testing has revealed no infection.