Upon entering the Animals & Us Rescue and Care Facility in Fujairah, I am greeted by a motley crowd of over a hundred dogs. Many of them have special needs. As they vie for my attention, with friendly woofs and wags, the owner of the facility comes in. Immediately the limelight is shifted from me and the dogs rush to the entrant, Michelle Francis – their saviour and best friend.
‘This is my welcoming committee,’ says Michelle. ‘They get very enthusiastic when we get visitors.’ Overlooking the fact that my welcome was short-lived, we proceed with the interview.
A regular day in Michelle’s life starts at 3 in the morning, I soon find out. All the animals living in the facility are fed, cleaned and given medication by Michelle, her family and caretaker Daniel. By 4am, the team is out on the streets feeding stray cats and dogs at more than 40 feeding stations around the area. At 5am, Michelle hits the road, driving more than 140km to start her work as grade-three English teacher at the Gems Modern Academy in Nad Al Sheba, Dubai. When she reaches home at 6pm, it is time for the night feeding schedule.
Day in, day out, with such tireless dedication, Michelle and her team have saved over 4,000 animals including dogs, cats, donkeys, foxes, rabbits and birds. Her husband Clayton and sons Vernon and Cruz have been instrumental in ensuring that the activities of the facility run like clockwork.
Born in Adra, a small British colony in West Bengal, India, Michelle is the eldest of six siblings. Her father Stanley Edgar Francis worked in the railways and mother Suzette was a teacher. ‘My parents taught me to rise up above education as humanity lay ahead of everything else. Acting on that, as a little girl I would feed all the stray dogs in our area and let them sleep in our garden,’ she remembers.
Arriving in Fujairah in 2000, she was recruited as a teacher and lived in a flat. Soon she found herself rescuing abandoned animals from the street. In 2004, when she shifted to a villa in Madhab (Fujairah), she went one step further and started feeding the strays in the neighbourhood. ‘Those dogs were very docile, calm and loving. They never even barked at us. My husband and I began to make meals for them, mainly of rice, chicken and vegetables.’
Any animal that was abandoned, wounded or living in a dangerous area found refuge in her house; as she ‘just couldn’t turn away from an animal in distress. After a rescue the animals were neutered and treated for any wounds they had. They were then prepared for adoption. ‘But unfortunately there were always more rescues than homes,’ she says.
In 2010, they made the decision to shift to the Fujairah Industrial Area to a bigger place as more animals needed help. Michelle took every stray she had been feeding in that area with her and they set up Animals & Us as a not-for-profit organisation licensed under the Emirates Animal Welfare Society. ‘We still have our first rescue doggy, Ceejay, who is now 14 years old,’ she says.
Michelle states that each rescue tells a story of the cruelty meted out to these loving creatures.
Take Avina for instance. As a pup she went missing from the feeding station one day. ‘It was quite unlike her, and I never gave up looking for her. Two weeks later, a man who was working at a building site informed us that he saw another man throw an acidic substance from a bottle on a dog. The dog had run under pieces of wood. I went there and found it was our Avina. She was howling in pain with her whole right side and parts of the back leg. I had no car. I carried her in my arms and walked to the vet clinic, where she was given treatment. It has been 10 years and till today parts of her fur hasn’t grown,’ says Michelle, her eyes almost welling up as she recounts the tragedy.
Francis, a mixed breed dog, was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. (His story, Dog on Wheels, has been featured in Gulf News). He was rescued by Michelle and Stray Dogs Centre Umm Al Quwain. ‘We cannot thank Amirah William and team from the Stray Dogs Centre enough for their unstinting support to us.’
For a long time Francis used a makeshift set of wheels to move around, and needed intensive physiotherapy to get him back on his feet. ‘He began walking without wheels after we spent months on rehabilitation and other exercises. He is such a friendly dog. No one would believe that this doggy who was abused by humans, still loves humans so very much,’ says Michelle.
Then there is Percy Jones, the cat who survived a fall from the seventh floor, from where he was thrown. He had his right leg amputated but still limps around the premises with a cheerful grin.
Other animals taken care of by the team include donkeys – fed outside as there is no place to keep them inside. ‘We have rehabilitated many donkeys with hurt legs but most of them are very frightened or shy. As for the fox rescues, we have to hand them over to the vets, who help to get them back in their habitat,’ she says.
With such a large extended family to tend for, the expenses usually hit the roof. The Francises pay the rent, electrical bills, caretaker salary and most of the other expenditure from their own pockets. The rent of the facility is Dh6,700 per month, the monthly diesel bill is Dh16,000 (they use Dh535 of diesel per day).
The generator hire is Dh2,100 per month and water is Dh3,000. Then there are the regular cleaning agents, vet runs, neutering programmes and vaccinations. ‘We get food donated to us but it never lasts the full month. We still buy food for over Dh10,000 per month. The free TNRs (Trap, Neuter and Release) we get cover a few animals – they are from Nathalie Grall Sorensen, who runs Friends of Animals Dubai.
‘We do get some support from the community, through garage sales and people helping out at the facility but the monthly struggle is always there,’ says Michelle, adding that they mostly pay for 80 per cent of the costs.
In 2015, realising the power of social media, Michelle created the Facebook page Animals & Us. She found a few like-minded volunteers, who have now become part of a core team in running the operations. British expat Angharad Irving-Jones met Michelle over the rescue of Francis the mixed breed dog. She now serves as the co-founder of the facility. ‘Animal rescue, rehabilitation and general animal welfare are among my top priorities. Since they have no voice, I wish to be their voice,’ she says.
Portuguese expat Andrea Rodrigues saw a Facebook post about coolers needed for the facility. After visiting, she hasn’t looked back since. ‘I have been a rescuer since 2017; helping these innocent souls has given me a purpose in life,’ she says.
‘There are too many people who are invaluable to us. Fiona Myers Watson has been the lifeline of the operation. Kya Nolasco does all the financials and looks into expenses, social media posts, logistics and emails. Nicola Welsh manages all the adoptions and vet runs. Then there’s Andrew and Riza who manage social media,’ she says.
She also talks of the many people in the community who help out, through everything from garage sales, book sales, sharing posts on social media, fostering, sponsoring the food, and volunteering. ‘Food companies have come forward to help us with food donations. And there are others who like to be anonymous. If you are reading this article, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
Nargish Khambatta, Principal of Gems Modern Academy where Michelle teaches, call her ‘an extraordinary woman who despite her personal challenges makes it her business to care for animals that no one else seems to care for. Her compassion comes gushing through when she speaks about them – it’s almost as if she has a connection with stray and distressed animals at a different level. A dedicated teacher, her special assemblies are very meaningful and her passion for teaching and the children in her care goes beyond doing a mere job. She passes on this passion to her children and colleagues as well! The world needs more of her kind.’
Sheldon Dias, a colleague from school who also volunteers at the facility, is similarly effusive. ‘Until I actually visited her shelter, which she prefers to call “home”, the number of animals that she looked after was just that – a statistic. However, when I had a first-hand experience into the kind of life she leads and the sacrifices she makes, I could not help but salute her and her family. Rather than complaining about circumstances, she just focuses on the measures that can be taken to rectify human transgressions.’
In 2019, the facility was renamed as Animals and Us Rescue and Care Facility and in October, a documentary called Paw Prints was made on Michelle’s tireless journey and released at the Sharjah International Film Festival. The director, Nebula Karkada, and her team spent three months at the facility to understand the operations of the place, even accompanying Michelle for the night feeds.
Currently Michelle is working on a project with the Fujairah municipality to help neuter stray animals. ‘TNR is the only way to reduce the number of strays on the streets. We had a meeting with the Director-General of Fujairah municipality, Mr Mohamed Afkham, a man of great vision. He wants the community to work together to put animal welfare in place. A project will be on board soon in which we aim to educate people to provide a safe and secure environment for every animal in Fujairah,’ says Michelle.
‘There is no end to this work as this is a lifelong commitment but our joy comes from the fact that each of us do our part to help the animals. I have a full-time job and the feeding, rescuing and vet runs. I never go on holidays or visit my family. It has been over 10 years since I took a vacation,’ says Michelle.
‘My mum always used to say “you can’t make everyone happy”. But then again, this is about the animals not people. I have been a firm believer that we are here to do what we can and we should do it because it is right, and not because we gain from it.’
For more information visit Animals and Us Fujairah on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.