Eco-Stories: Amanda Borlotti – Veganism, Animal Rescue in Abu Dhabi

Eco-Stories: Amanda Borlotti – Veganism, Animal Rescue in Abu Dhabi

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.

Amanda Borlotti is an amateur triathlete and passionate vegan living in the United Arab Emirates. Amanda is a cat lover who helps out with local rescue groups - this love of animals was her driver for turning vegan three years ago. Becoming vegan opened her eyes to environmental issues, and she hopes the rise in veganism will help protect the future of our planet.

This interview was recorded on February 10, 2020.


Fiona Martin (FM): Great. Welcome, Amanda. We're with AM for The Eco-Interviews. Amanda is based in Abu Dhabi. How are you doing today, Amanda?

Amanda Borlotti (AB): I'm great, thanks, Fiona. Thanks for inviting me on.

FM: Well, I'm excited to speak to you. Amanda and I know each other because we're both triathletes and we have the same coach. Amanda is an amateur triathlete and a passionate vegan. Amanda is a cat lover who helps out with local rescue groups and this love of animals was her driver for turning vegan three years ago. Becoming vegan opened her eyes to environmental issues and she hopes the rise in veganism will help protect the future of our planet. I'm super excited to speak to you-

AB: Thank you.

FM: ... to talk to you about your veganism, your animal activism, how that relates into environmentalism, and then also just get a little insight about what's going on in Abu Dhabi because that's not an area of the world that I'm particularly familiar with. So, let's start with, tell us about yourself, Amanda, and how you ended up in Abu Dhabi.

AB: Well, I'm from London, originally, London in England. I'm an executive assistant in the finance industry. When I graduated, I was just very lucky that my company transferred me to work in Dubai and I was there for four years before I went back to the UK. And then just another job opportunity came up here in Abu Dhabi and having previously worked in Dubai and being familiar with this part of the world, I thought I'd come back for a short stint and I've actually been here for almost 10 years now, so I guess I call this home at the moment.

FM: Yeah, there's a large ex-pat population there, is there not?

AB: Yes, yes. Huge. Yeah. Lots of us over here.

FM: Nice. Well, tell us about your journey to veganism. I'm very interested to hear about this. You and I, without even knowing each other, I think went vegan about the same time, so I'd be interested to hear about that journey, yeah.

AB: Yes, it's three years for me now, just coming up to three years next month. For me, the main driver was animals. I'm, like you said in my introduction, I'm a huge cat lover. I've got four of them roaming around the apartment right now. And I help out with local rescue charities because there's a huge problem here with kind of stray cats and also dumped pets and everything. So, it's something I'm very, very passionate about.

Just one day I just kind of woke up to the idea that, on one hand, I was helping to save these lovely, beautiful creatures and then, on the other hand, I was eating a different kind of creature on my plate and I just couldn't balance it up. I mean I actually went vegan overnight and it's not something that everybody can do, but I just thought that I'm not going to save one and eat another and just turned vegan overnight.

FM: Yeah. And so my vegan journey started from almost a performance aspect in terms of athletics, but very much an environmental one and then it moved into the animal aspect. So, with animals being your entrance did going vegan open your eyes to other aspects of the lifestyle?

AB: Absolutely. Animals was my main driver but then I quickly learned that health was a huge part of it for me. I mean, I just felt so much healthier once I turned vegan, in time, obviously. I lost a lot of weight. I became better at triathlon. All my times improved. So, that was a huge side effect for me, and obviously a very, very pleasurable side effect.

And then as I delved more into veganism and watched more of the documentaries, I realized what a huge impact being vegan actually has on the environment. And so that's something I've become much more passionate about because of being vegan.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And something we were talking about before we were recording, I know some of the interviews I've had on here before have been academics and researchers that are really 100% surrounded by this sort of ecological movement. And I am not an academic in this field at all. So, it's been very interesting speaking to those people. And you yourself mentioned that you're not necessarily like an academic in ecological issues, but I wanted to get you on here because I want to talk to everyday people who are making these sort of small changes to make the climate crisis more accessible. How do you feel about that?

AB: I agree 100%. I mean it's wonderful hearing from all the experts, from all the researchers, the professors in the world, but sometimes it's just really nice just to talk to somebody normal, your neighbor or your work colleague, somebody who's gone vegan or is making changes in their lifestyle to reduce their plastic use. And just learning from people and seeing what other people are doing, what normal people are doing and seeing what we as a normal individual can do just to help the situation.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and a little bit of background for anyone who doesn't understand the connection between veganism and the environmental movement. I know I came to know about it through the documentary Cowspiracy-

AB: Yeah.

FM: ... that kind of said it for me. My husband is very aware of the ecological crisis that we're facing and it seemed unattainable for me to do anything because we focus on things like transportation. And where I live, you have to have a car, there's no public transport. And so, me not driving means I don't have an income or able to go food shopping even.

And so it makes, when I watched Cowspiracy and they said that the transportation and emissions issues around factory farming animals is even greater than the transportation issue and just simply not eating meat is a big positive way to take the demand out of it, that felt like something tangible for me. Did you have a similar experience or did you watch Cowspiracy? What did you think of that?

AB: Yeah, I did. Yeah, amazing documentary and I'd encourage everybody to watch it. I agree with you. I had no idea that the animal agriculture industry was actually doing more harm to the environment than flying on a plane on holiday or driving our car every day. And I don't think many people do. I think that's the issue. Not many people realize that, how much land is used, how much water is used, how much CO2 the animals produce. It's just a real life eyeopener once you do realise these things.

FM: Yeah, certainly. And it was much easier for me to control what was on my plate than to, like I said, stop driving my car, which is still very difficult. Being a cycling advocate, one day I hope to not have to drive a car, but we're not there yet.

AB: Yeah. And it's the same in this part of the world. Everybody has big cars here. Everyone's got the big 4x4s. There's very limited public transport. It's something that the government are working on, but at the moment it's not really easy just to get on a bus or something, so, everybody has cars, and something I do feel guilty about, but like you, it's just an essential. But at least it's good to know I'm doing something else good in not eating animals and contributing in that way.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, tell us a little bit about Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I was speaking to someone recently and the natural assumption is that it's an oil and gas driven economy, but I wanted to look that up first. And the statistics, I saw that in 2018, the oil and gas sector contributed to 26% of the overall GDP. So, certainly not 100%, certainly not over 50%.

AB: Right.

FM: It's a large sector but can you speak to what's driving their economy and then how does that play into if they have environmental policy or not?

AB: Yeah, I mean I think 20 years ago, well, possibly even longer, 30 years ago, the oil and gas definitely played a bigger part of the GDP over here. Obviously, I think they're very aware that one day that the oil will run out and they're also focusing, because of that, sorry, they're focusing much, much more on tourism. They're trying to make that their main industry at the moment, particularly in Dubai where there's just so many hotels and Dubai, I think, is the second busiest airport in the world. So that's, that's really quite incredible.

As far as the oil and gas goes, it obviously is hugely harmful to the environment. It produces a ridiculous amount of CO2. But here in the UAE, I can't speak for the rest of the region, I don't know much about what's going on in places like Saudi, but certainly here the UAE government have got a longterm strategy in place to try and to reduce all the damage that the oil is actually doing.

Excuse me, just for looking at my notes, but I was just looking at their strategy. It's a long term strategy that looks ahead to 2050 so that they're really looking ahead, but they're trying to control the emissions that are produced in the flare of the unwanted natural gas because that produces a huge amount.

They're trying to increase the energy efficiency. They're committing to renewable energy sources. They're trying to increase the clean energy. We've just got a huge new nuclear power plant that's just about to start working now and they're trying to increase the amount of solar because we obviously get a huge amount of sun here, so, that's definitely something that they can focus on. I mean it's all long term goals, but at least they are aware of the situation and now actually putting plans in place to try and do something about it.

FM: Yeah, I mean, let's celebrate the wins certainly and not sticking their head in the sand in regards to that.

AB: Yeah.

FM: And I do commend them, as well, for trying to diversify their economy and not just be reliant on gas and oil for sure.

AB: But the trouble is, the tourism also brings its own set of issues, more planes. That's more travel as well. And the amount of cars that are on the road here due to all the tourists. Then huge amount of waste, I think, goes with tourism in this part of the world because we have the fanciest hotels imaginable. And I think that things like food waste that goes on in these hotels must just be incredible.

FM: Mmm. Oh my goodness. Yeah. I was going to say, oh and you just visited mangroves and the most recent interview I did was talking about carbon sequestration and mangroves. So tell us about that visit to the mangrove park.

AB: Yes. It's beautiful. I mean we do have a very unique landscape here because obviously we have the desert, which, there are parts where there's beautiful sand dunes, but for the most it is quite a sort of desolate desert. But we're also surrounded by the sea and lots of little islands and the mangroves are just beautiful. And it's really not...

That's another initiative, you see. That's really nice to know that they're actually trying to protect these places now because once upon a time they weren't too aware of the damage they were doing. And so they just plunked buildings, hotels, shopping malls, everything on this land and reclaimed the land. But I think now that they're realizing the importance of places like this, that they are protecting it. And that they've opened up several protected areas as the mangroves where I went the other day.

There's also an area in the desert where we have flamingos and they're protecting the flamingos there. Lots of nice initiatives going on with the wildlife. One of our islands has turtles that come in and they've got a whole rehabilitation program going on there where they bring the turtles in to nest and then release them out into the ocean.

FM: Nice.

AB: Yeah.

FM: Yeah, the protecting mangroves is really good. The conversation I had with Oli Moraes in Episode Five, mangroves have been especially threatened by tourism because they are on beautiful coastal areas, tropical seas and so the way of doing things before was just to hack them down and build hotels on them. And it's only now that we're realizing that the Earth has natural carbon sequestration tools.

There's this, I think Richard Branson and then maybe even the Prince of Wales is trying to fund technology to suck carbon out of the air, which all sounds quite sci-fi and exciting, but in reality, we have all the tools to be able to sequester carbon already. And it's just crazy to spend millions on a technology that's a question mark when the earth has the technology waiting for us. So, need to just open our eyes and try and protect where we can, right?

AB: Yeah, and protect it. Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I think in the past, here in Abu Dhabi, so much of the mangroves probably has been destroyed, but at least they're doing something to protect the rest of it now.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely. So, triathlon, exciting topic I think that we both like to talk about.

AB: Yes.

FM: I know for me triathlon has been a way for me to be more out in nature. I get to run outside and something that I think is kind of unique to triathlon is the open water swimming aspect. So, I've swam in rivers and oceans and lakes that if I was just a pool swimmer, I might not get out there and do that. So, I find it connects me with nature. I find that I notice the birds and the deer around me.

I also notice the extreme weather changes that we're going through because we have a seasonal sport. So I distinctly remember the 2016 triathlon season being incredibly hot, I mean, running the half marathon in a 70.3 and it's 102 degrees Fahrenheit outside. It was just crazy. And then we find out two years later that 2016 was the hottest year on record and I just think, no surprise there. So, do you experience the same thing? Can you notice those changes and have you found the sport connects you with nature in the same way?

AB: Oh, absolutely. I mean we are so lucky here that we have wonderful outdoor facilities. I mean, we've got the beach, we've got several beaches right on our doorstep and it's amazing to be able to just go and swim in the ocean and put your feet in the sand.

And we have manmade, purpose-built cycle tracks, safe from the cars and everything and they are both in the desert and it's just wonderful just to cycle in the nice solitude with just the sand around you. Really, really love being in it. It does connect you with nature so much and you're just seeing the birds.

There's a cycle track in Dubai where you actually see oryx and camels and it's just wonderful. Yeah, really, really love being out in the nature and like you say, it does make you very aware of the weather. We obviously have quite extreme weather over here, crazy hot summers. But we've all noticed that in, probably in the past 10 years, that we get a lot colder winters than we used to. We're getting a lot more rain and storms. I mean this year alone, we've had several bad storms. Sorry, my cat's just mewed.

FM: That's okay.

AB: And I think 20 years ago that was really unheard of. You maybe got the rain once a year, if that, so definitely noticeable, the climate change for sure.

FM: Do they talk about that at all in the weather? Is something I've noticed, no?

AB: Not really.

FM: ... That something I've noticed here, only very recently have they started saying this flooding that we're getting can be connected to climate change, but literally it's only happened in the past two years. We even had, this is speculation on my part, but we had a local weatherman who used to really make that connection and he got fired.

AB: I wonder why.

FM: Yeah, but they don't talk about it there at all. It's just like, "Oh, this is unusual."

AB: Never. Even in summer, if it gets extremely hot over 50 degrees, that's actually meant to be a case that for workers to be sent home and everything. So, of course, it never officially reaches over 50 degrees, but we all say that it does in our cars and things. But, yeah, they don't like to talk about anything like that. And certainly if we have bad storms, they just say it was a freak one-off storm. They don't link the storms together to see that as a trend or anything.

FM: Yeah. I wonder how many once-in-a-millennia weather events we can have. We had a once-in-a-millennia flood here in October 2015 and every single time now we're getting similar, not to the extent that we had, but actually, we had a storm system come through and the water from upstream on our local river this weekend was the highest it's ever been since Hurricane Hugo, which was in 1989 and it was one of the most destructive hurricanes.

AB: Oh, wow.

FM: At that time, it was the most destructive hurricane in the United States in terms of damage.

AB: Wow.

FM: And I was like, and I distinctly remember it from my childhood driving over the bridge this weekend. I was like, "Okay, it's officially as high as I remember as a kid," which is insane. So, they say once-in-a-millennia, yet we continue to see these things happening.

AB: I know, and it's like everything that's going on in Australia. I listened to a bit of your latest podcast about the fires and everything and now they're having crazy torrential rain, aren't they, and flooding. It's just mad what's going on in the world.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, what type of wildlife does your desert landscape get? Camels, you mentioned, what else you guys-

AB: Camels, yes, we get oryx, what else? We get flamingos. In the mangroves, there's lots of kind of, I think they're storks. I mean that, to be honest, there's not a huge amount of wildlife here just because it is so dry and hot most of the time.

We have a huge amount of flora, but I think a lot of that might be artificially planted and created. There's a huge watering system that goes on here because I don't think many things would actually survive if it weren't for that. But the camels are pretty amazing to see when you're out cycling.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you've mentioned that you're a cat lover. We saw one of your cats make an appearance.

AB: Yes, sorry for that.

FM: No, I'll take it. My dog's over here sleeping. But tell us about the work you do with the cat rescue and it sounds like there seems to be an issue with street cats in Abu Dhabi.

AB: Yeah, there's a huge, huge issue with stray cats, so myself and various other individuals but there's no official government policy in place on it, so it's down to just individuals forming in groups. The main goal is to just TNR, to trap, neuter, and release. Just to try and keep the numbers down and stop the crazy overpopulation and then just look after the ones once you have neutered them and just try and keep them healthy.

I mean, in many ways that it's good to have some cats out there. It keeps the rats and the birds down. So, it's not an issue. It's just when they get crazy out of control and then they spread diseases and things. We also just have a problem with, because it's a very transient society, lots of expats, a lot of people when they leave they just dump the cats and it's left to people like myself and the other rescue people to have to sort of pick them up and try and find them homes.

FM: Yeah, and it seems like you've done an amazing job with that. Just from what I've seen on social media, rescuing cats, rehabbing them, getting them on airplanes, getting them to Germany and getting them to England. So amazing.

AB: Yeah, we do often fly them overseas. It seems to be more demand for them in places like England and Germany than there are here.

FM: Yeah. It's funny where you have a larger stray population. We have similar issues with stray dogs. It's just part of the culture. Yeah, it's part of the culture. They have hunting dogs and then there's just dogs running loose. Both of our dogs are rescue dogs. My dog I rescued from the street, she was just running around. But similarly, up north, they don't have the same issues. Maybe due to weather, but also because it's just policy and so we send our strays up to New England. My street dog had eight puppies when I first got her.

AB: Wow.

FM: And they all went up to the Hamptons in New York. So from like street dog to like fancy Hamptonites.

AB: Oh, they're being spoiled there.

FM: Our puppies are doing well. They love them so they can say they rescue dogs and I'm happy that they went somewhere because that was a lot of puppies.

AB: Ah, good. Love a happy ending.

FM: Yeah. All right, Amanda, so tell us, besides going vegan, what sort of things do you do in your day to day life to be mindful of the planet?

AB: I'm trying to make lots of small changes, really. There's so many things that we can do, but I think trying to do them all at once just becomes overwhelming. So, obviously one of the first things I did was try and reduce the amount of plastic in my life. The simple things like reusable bottles, reusable coffee flasks. I'm taking my own bags to the supermarket, things like that. And then any plastic that you unfortunately have to have, recycling it.

At last, here in Abu Dhabi, they're actually starting to encourage recycling, which is great. For a long time there weren't even any recycling facilities. Things like trying to save energy. We obviously have to have our AC on a lot in this part of the world, but try and not to have it too cold, turning it up a degree. Probably the opposite to what you guys have to do with your heating. You probably try and keep the heating down and we try and keep the AC down.

Also, obviously trying to save water. Turning off the tap when you clean your teeth, showering rather than baths. All the little things and also trying to replace all my household cleaning products with more environmentally friendly products as well as being cruelty-free. All my beauty products now are environmentally friendly and cruelty-free.

It all takes time because you obviously can't go out and replace things overnight. It's expensive. But just trying to do what I can each day and also just trying to encourage other people, too. I think education is so important with things like this. I think some people just aren't aware that when they throw away that piece of plastic where that bit of plastic is actually going to end up. So, I'm just trying to just share everything as well with people.

FM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And do you find it easy or difficult to find these sort of more conscious products? I know it's been a journey for me in the past few years to replace things like sponges for washing the dishes and stuff like that.

AB: Yeah.

FM: And it can be, it's hit or miss as to whether it's easy or difficult to find more sustainable products. How have you found that?

AB: Same here. I mean things are slowly starting to come into the supermarkets over here. We're quite lucky that we have quite a few English supermarket chains here and they're much better at having the Unbrand products, which are becoming more popular in places like the UK. Things I can't get here, I tend to shop online for, places like Amazon and things, which obviously, comes with its own set of problems when it's being flown in from America or the UK or something. But, it's just trying to do what you can really. But I really, really hate to buy something that isn't environmentally friendly or cruelty-free. I can't bring myself to do it anymore, to be honest.

FM: Yeah, it's definitely a mind shift for sure.

So what advice would you give someone who's just now waking up to the climate crisis and finding maybe this overwhelming? What would you tell someone to do?

AB: Start small. Start small. Don't try and make massive changes overnight. Whether it's, if they want to become vegan eventually, I mean, I did go vegan overnight, but I think I'm a rare case. I think it's much better if people start into it slowly.

Try being vegan one day a week or just having one meal a day where there's no meat on the table. Just make small changes and ask people for help. Seek advice from other vegans.

I do honestly think that eating less meat, being vegetarian, being vegan, they're the things that really are going to help this planet in the long run. I think it's going to be the single most effective thing so if somebody can reduce their meat, I think that's just a wonderful thing.

And then the same kind of attitude to all the other things we're just talking about, recycling, reusing, avoiding food waste, all those kinds of things. Just start small. Just start implementing one change. Start with just taking a reusable coffee flask and a reusable water and then see how that goes and then start adding in other things.

I think it just becomes very overwhelming if you try and do everything all at once and then that leads to failure.

FM: Certainly, like any sort of habit change, small steps, set yourself up for success instead of setting yourself up for failure.

AB: Yeah.

FM: And just a reminder to listeners in regards to environmentalism and veganism and the idea is that, factory farmed animals right now, we're clearing vast amounts of land to have them on the land, but we're also clearing vast amount of land and forest, including the rainforest in the Amazon to grow feed for animals. So, the idea behind going vegan is that you would reduce the demand so there's no longer a need to clear cut forests for feed and animals.

There is a big regenerative agriculture movement where they try and do pasture farming and I'm learning more about that as to how that's ecologically better. I don't think I'll go back to eating meat. I don't really miss meat. I don't miss dairy, but there certainly are two lines of thought on that.

The cruelty, I still think killing an animal is cruel for food when we don't need it. But it must be mentioned. I know there's some very ethical farmers out there who are doing regenerative practices where the livestock have good lives and they also are a part of the ecology and help make carbon sinks as well.

So, if anyone's interested in veganism, certainly you can reach out to us and you can find Amanda. Amanda, where can people find you online if they do want to reach out to you?

AB: On Instagram is probably my best bet, vegan_trigirl.

FM: That's right, vegan_trigirl is good and it's super fun to watch, to follow you in your journey, to see the cat rescue is fun. I love seeing those little guys. You rescued a gray Scottish cat? I don't know.

AB: A Scottish fold, the Scottish fold with the cute little ears, yeah.

FM: And then you get to race in some amazing places. I know you've done Western Australia recently, and I think you've raced in Brazil as well, correct?

AB: Yeah, that was amazing.

FM: So, give Amanda a follow at vegan_trigirl for sure. And Amanda, I really appreciate your time with us today.

AB: It's been a pleasure to talk to you, Fiona. Thanks for having me on.

FM: All right, well, we'll be in touch and make sure to follow Amanda and follow this podcast wherever you can.

AB: Thanks, Fiona.