BEIRUT: The April rescue of Charlie the chimpanzee from a Beirut zoo marked the culmination of an eight-year struggle by NGO Animals Lebanon to secure the primate’s freedom. After three months in the care of the organization, Charlie was shipped off to a sanctuary in Brazil last Wednesday thanks to a case that could set a precedent for future rescue efforts.
Charlie was the last remaining chimpanzee in Lebanon, says Jason Mier, director of Animals Lebanon, who moved to the country from Africa in 2006 to combat the prevalence of trafficking of chimpanzees and other exotic animals.
Over the past eight years Animals Lebanon have successfully rescue two other chimpanzees, shipping them to sanctuaries in Brazil and the U.K., but Mier explains that the operation to confiscate Charlie from Beirut’s Animal City zoo took so long because of the dangers posed by unsuccessful rescue attempts.
In 2006, he says, he was granted government permission to confiscate Charlie and two other chimpanzees, one of which was being kept in a restaurant, from their owners, after the Ministry of Agriculture determined that they had been imported illegally.
“The night before the confiscation all three chimpanzees disappeared,” he recalls. “One never showed up again. One owner deliberately killed the chimpanzee and threw his body in a dumpster so that he wouldn’t be confiscated and Charlie was kept hidden for about two weeks and as soon as I left [the country] he was put back on display.”
In the wake of that incident, he says, the organization stepped up efforts to increase protection mechanisms and since 2010 have been campaigning for Lebanon to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement to safeguard wild animals from trafficking. The law eventually went into effect in Lebanon in May 2013.
“To think that one [chimpanzee] was hidden completely and [the other killed], that’s a heavy burden to bear even if it’s not my direct fault,” Mier says. “We didn’t want anything to happen to Charlie. If he was hidden or sold that’s kind of the end of the story. That’s why we worked to have Lebanon join the CITES convention and only then were we able to open a lawsuit about it.
“I did file a court case in 2006,” he added, “after the confiscation failed and it was signed by the general prosecutor, but because of the 2006 war that got pushed to the side. We had one setback after another but that was to put ourselves in as good a position as possible... Things worked out. We had very good lawyers and a great judge and it worked.”
The judge’s ruling in Charlie’s case could help the organization rescue animals in similar situations in the future, Mier speculates.
“In the end Charlie was freed as the judge recognized the existing laws and international conventions,” he explains, “and put the physical and mental welfare of Charlie above the claims of the zoo owner.
“This was really the first court case and it’s a little bit of a precedent. We need to understand how we can use this in future, to make sure that these things don’t happen or if they do happen we can take some more immediate action.”
One of the main problems is that existing regulations relating to the import and export of exotic animals are not enforced.
“We’re still working on getting this national law for the protection of animals enacted,” says Mier, “and we had a very good meeting last week with the governor of Beirut to try to get stricter regulations for his area, but you don’t have anybody going and... checking on these things. If you don’t pay your parking meter there’s somebody walking about with a camera who will put it on Facebook. We need to get to the same point where there’s somebody checking on pet shops and zoos.”
Since the ratification of the CITES convention and the onset of the war in Syria, Mier says, animal smuggling in Lebanon has lessened somewhat. Many animals were previously smuggled into the country across the border, destined to be sold at an enormous profit in Europe. The problem is far from being solved, however.
“There’s always something in the works,” he says. “We just rescued two tigers and a lion a couple of months ago... It’s a public concern, a public health issue, that there’re so many baby tigers and lions still being smuggled into the country. We need to do more work with some of those animals, but really [we should be] preventing the animals from coming in in the first place... There’re only so many sanctuaries in the world.”