|Not long ago, this lion was a small cub.|
Imagine a lush courtyard behind walls. Several fountains and ponds beneath the shade of flowering tree branches keep a slight breeze flowing. Inside the thick concrete walls of the air conditioned house, you walk on cool stone tiles with bare feet. The newest member of the family, a lion cub just a few weeks old, jumps off a plush upholstered lounge chair and approaches you. She nuzzles your ankle. The cub was expensive to import but your children wanted the exotic pet, and how could you say no? You scratch her behind the ears and she bats playfully at your fingers.
Just months later, your lion cub has grown to nearly two hundred pounds and is almost adult size. You are having difficulty getting enough meat to feed her; she eats 15 pounds of raw chicken or beef each day. You can afford it but still it bothers you, the money and trouble to obtain and freeze the meat, then defrost it each day. It takes up much of the servants’ time.
The lion needs medical care, but there is no veterinarian for exotic pets nearby, and you can’t transport her without a large vehicle and cage. She has sprayed and damaged the furniture, so she must now remain outside in the courtyard. Because she might escape, you chain her to a tree. She’s used to you and the rest of the family, but she has begun to act more aggressive around the smaller children. You are getting uncomfortable with this, so you move her to a more isolated place in the yard, a corner where there is less shelter and the heat is more intense. She spends her time alone. Her health is deteriorating.
This hardly seems possible but it is a reality that the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre confronts each day. When I heard about the ADWC I looked on their Facebook page and saw a photo of an adorable lion cub, with a comment underneath it that said, “I would love to have one of those sitting on the edge of my bed!” The next comment said, “There are too many of these out there already.” Obviously, there are people who need to be educated about the realities of keeping wild and exotic animals as pets.
Just in case you need more specific examples, read these comments on a UAE community blog announcing the Centre’s move to its present location in July, 2008:
IYM said... Oh great… I'm totally in love with wild life! Tigers…give me a small one as my birthday gift please…
Sheikha M. said ... no, the animals stay at the center. The word they are trying to put out there is that these animals are NOT pets, as many high net people get them as pets, then don't take care of them. Last year, 2 very young lion cubs came in, they looked like skeletons with hide stretched over them. The female was very aggressive when being bottle fed, so the help just stopped feeding them. Fortunately the owner was "convinced" to give them up to ADWC and now they are doing great and are almost a year old.
|Monkeys are an ever-popular pet |
among the privileged.
It’s estimated that there are 3,000 exotic animals in Abu Dhabi in need of rescue. The Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center began as a conservation program for large carnivores. In 2008, it expanded its mission to become a sanctuary and orphanage for sick and confiscated animals.
I went to ADWC with a group of six including Lucy, Linda, Laura, Jenn and Sara. We met our guide Steve at a petrol station and he led us caravan-style to the Center, which is down a dirt road off the Al Ain truck road south of Abu Dhabi.
|You can see the large enclosures in this aerial photo.|
|The caracal has tufted ears.|
This animal is fascinatingly beautiful but also fiercely territorial. It’s not a species of concern for conservation, and in fact in some places they are considered a nuisance, much like the coyote in the U.S., and are hunted by farmers and ranchers. In fact, the shooting club in Abu Dhabi is named after the caracal.
How does an animal come to the Center, asked Laura? Steve answered that sometimes people report an animal that they know is being abused or has become a nuisance and it’s confiscated. Other times the owner will call the Center when it gets too large or expensive to feed.
“So . . .” someone in our group said, “if I know of a panther, should I tell you?” “Yes,” Steve said.
“There’s one in my neighborhood," our companion said. "I’ve seen it when the gate is left open. It’s chained to a tree.”
Incredible! But true. What happens when an animal like this is reported? “First we check it out,” Steve said. “We might take possession of the animal, but it’s not always that simple. Sometimes we have to be careful, depending on who owns it. It can get sensitive.”
After looking at a few more cages, we piled into an open
vehicle and headed to the area where the bigger animals live. Here, fenced areas are several acres in size, and the entire area is enclosed by more fencing with sturdy gates.
Steve drove us around and introduced us to each group of animals, explaining what they are and where their natural habitat is. Sometimes he shared an anecdote about how the animal came to the Centre or what condition it was in when it arrived.
Many of the big cats are endangered, and the Centre’s focus is on breeding and conservation. According to their Facebook page:
|The goal is to simulate the animals' natural |
habitats, but its expensive.
On a fixed monthly budget, the Centre is improving the living conditions for the animals as funds become available. Feeding them is expensive, and food donations are not easy to obtain. Steve said that fresh produce donations are always in need. Don't the local stores donate outdated produce? No, for some reason they are reluctant.
The first big cat we saw was this beautiful tiger. Steve told us he was in pain for two years before coming to the center. Now, its gums are healed and, according to Steve, “he’s a sweetheart” and really likes people.
Nonetheless, we stayed a safe distance from the fence.
The leopard cat is the smallest of the “big” cats, and often mistaken for a domestic cat. But it is wild.
This pair of panthers will hopefully breed.
The cheetah preys on anything small, and is “fascinated with little children,” Steve told us. So if you want to prevent an animal from looking upon you as its mid-morning snack, don’t crouch in front of its cage to take photos. You need to make yourself big, just as you would if you were facing off a bear.
Grey wolves are better adapted to the arctic than the tropics.
These are smaller Arabian wolves.
I’ve admired white tigers ever since I saw the one named Prince Charles at the San Francisco Zoo.
Next, we went to see the lions. These animals are so majestic they take your breath away.
My favorite moment was when we stopped in front of the lion family. “We’ll stay in the vehicle here,” Steve said. In the corner of the enclosure nearest to us laid the male. His mate was to the right, in the middle, while their two young cubs played together behind them. As we watched, the mother slowly walked over to her cubs, collected them, and the three joined the proud father lion. The little family settled down together.
Two cages down, we were treated to a similar scene, and this time we could get out and take photos through the fence, because the lions were far enough away.
Lucy shot this great video:
We were breathless with the beauty of these wild creatures, but the tour wasn’t over yet.
“Now for our last stop, we’ll go to what we call the barnyard,” Steve said, and drove us to a large pen with a fence that we could reach over and feed tree leaves to the goats that came over to investigate. We admired the alpacas, donkeys, Cape Desert Hare, turtle and tortoise.This menagerie also included a pond with several varieties of ducks – some rescued, and others who came in of their own free will and stayed on.
Two days later, I showed my photos to the sixth grade children. A few had been to the Centre, and the girls squealed and “awwwed," but they all agreed immediately that these animals are not pets.
Still, there are plenty of people out there who don’t yet understand. Hopefully the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center can continue to breed endangered species and rescue animals from harm for many years to come.