BEIRUT: Peering out at the world from behind rusted iron bars, the thirst for liquid is quenched with dirty water but the thirst for freedom remains forever unsated.
“A zoo in Lebanon is a prison,” claims Mona Khoury, co-founder of Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA) and a lover of animals since she was a little girl. “All the animals are depressed.”
Animal protection agencies have set international standards for the treatment and living conditions of animals in zoological gardens. But animal rights groups and veterinarians maintain that these standards are not adhered to in Lebanese zoos.
According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), “Detailed provisions on minimum requirements ... regarding furnishing, care of animals, operation [and] education of the person employed in keeping animals, shall be determined by ... competent authority taking into account ... scientific findings and the needs of the animal species kept.”
Dr. Gaby Hilan, one of the few Lebanese veterinarians with experience treating wild animals, told The Daily Star about the needs of wild animals kept in zoos. According to Hilan, zoos require live-in veterinarians called “zookeepers,” who build relationships of trust with the animals. The zookeepers know the individual personality of an animal and the intricacies of dealing with it “better than vets,” points out Hilan. However, the scarcity of such specialists in Lebanon has led Lebanese zoos to adopt a different approach when hiring employees.
“In Lebanon, they hire [unskilled] foreign laborers for low wages to take care of the animals,” explains Hilan, adding that the workers lack the proper education to deal with wild animals. The result is often neglect, mistreatment and abuse of the animals.
“How will the baboon or chimp survive sitting behind bars with no tree to climb or not enough room to go jogging? What will the crocodile do in an empty pool?”
When an official at one zoo was asked by The Daily Star why they managed an operation without sufficient resources, she said they had expanded some of the animals’ cages since taking over from the previous owners and that “we’re doing our best.” An official at another zoo, where this reporter saw a monkey with a green mouth—presumably from eating fresh paint from the cages—simply hung up when told the press was calling.
Mistreatment and abuse are but a whisker of the hardships endured by animals in Lebanese zoos. According to Souraya Zattar Mouawad, founder and director of Animals Protection and Freedom (APAF), the animals must put up with dirty water, poor-quality food and inadequate environmental conditions.
Mouawad, a painter who uses the proceeds from her sales to fund APAF, bemoans the lack of nature and space in Lebanese zoos. She cites cages too small to meet the animals’ exercise needs, and stone floors barren of any trees or plants reminiscent of the animals’ natural habitat.
“How will the baboon or chimp survive sitting behind bars with no tree to climb or not enough room to go jogging? What will the crocodile do in an empty pool?” asks Mouawad, adding that conditions in Lebanese zoos are “not acceptable anymore.”
While Hilan acknowledges that keeping the animals in cages with stone floors prevents bacteria from accumulating and simplifies cleaning, he realizes that cages too often lack “hiding spaces.”
“The animals are always stressed in their cages,” the veterinarian explains. He notes that if provided with private spaces the animals could escape from visitors when overwhelmed.
For Mouawad, the only way to truly alleviate the animals’ stress is to abolish the zoos.
Khoury agrees. “Removing wild animals from their environment hurts them a lot. They belong to the wild; it’s why we call them wild animals,” she says.
While Hilan recognizes that most zoos in Lebanon are mismanaged and disregard the animals’ well-being, he says that he is in contact with one particular Lebanese zoo that has asked him to work for them full-time, adding that “they are doing the best they can.”
Khoury, however, is adamant that more action be taken. “[The animals] might be in good health, but it is not enough,” she insists. “I won’t believe a lion will be happy in a 10-square-meter cage. A lion would be better in the wild even if he starved.”
While zoo owners are certainly guilty of mistreating wild animals, they aren’t the only ones to blame. According to Mouawad, the last law passed that dealt with animal rights was made up of only three pages and was drafted in the era of the French Mandate.
Khoury and Hilan both feel that Lebanese society’s “ignorance” on the subject of ethical treatment for animals is a major part of the problem. “The mentality [in Lebanon towards animals] is not good,” Hilan laments. He points to the fact that Lebanon signed an international agreement to not import or keep endangered animals in zoos, but “they haven’t followed the agreement. You still see them at zoos.”
While animal rights groups such as BETA, APAF and others continue to push for government protection and reforms, illegal dealers who sell wild animals to zoos continue to make millions of dollars each year. With such ludicrous profits, Hilan feels that money will continue to trump ethics in Lebanon.
“[Illegal wild animal dealers] will bring you God from heaven if you just tell them you have the money.”
While both Mouawad’s APAF and Khoury’s BETA agree that Lebanon is not equipped to have zoos, the question remains as to what can be done to improve them.
“We should boycott the zoos so we reach our goal of shutting them down,” declares Khoury, a sentiment echoed by Mouawad.
“We can send [the animals] to sanctuaries or make one in Lebanon if our government works on it.”
She concludes by taking a page from American revolutionary Patrick Henry, who famously proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Khoury says: “I would rather know animals are dead than living 15 years in a cage.”