Exotic animals symbolize luxury in Lebanon’s illegal trade

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Wild bears are kept in Syrian ‘zoos’ where they can be bought and transported in the exotic animal trade. (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)

Grey parrots and vervet monkeys mingle with cats, dogs and hamsters in many of Lebanon’s pet shops, but if you want the really exciting animals, you have to ask behind the counter.

Lions, panthers and bears—in fact many of the mascots from the American sports franchises—are just a few of the animals you can buy here.

One pet store in Beirut—whose owner requested anonymity for fear of protests from animal rights groups—offers a chance at owning your own piece of the wild. The owner received a degree in veterinarian studies in Russia and, unlike many pet stores here, the six dogs strategically placed in the window are clean, healthy and vaccinated.

But these aren’t the only animals he sells. He can get you lion and bear cubs, leopards, even a baby crocodile. Sitting behind a tidy desk surrounded by bags of pet food, he describes the process of how a wild animal is ordered and smuggled into Lebanon.

It starts with a deposit (lions, for example, require a down payment of $1,000-$1,500). The pet store owner then puts in an order to a Lebanese middleman who contacts a farm in neighboring Syria, where lions are raised for sale. The animals are placed in boxes and loaded into taxis that head for the Lebanese-Syrian border. At the border the taxi driver will often bribe a guard around $10, usually saying there are dogs in the crates.

According to Jason Mier of Animals Lebanon, chimpanzees in central Africa can go for as little as $20. This means buying and reselling the animals abroad can bring in a huge profit. (Photo courtesy of Animals Lebanon)

The pet store owner offers a video on his iPhone as proof of the process. In it a lion cub is jammed into a metal kennel most likely meant for domesticated dogs or cats. A man whose face is out of the frame kicks the cage.

“[The animals] have a better life here [in Lebanon] than on the farms in Syria,” says the pet store owner, adding that carnivores like lions and leopards are often underfed because farm owners can’t afford to feed them meat.

But despite his concern for the animals, his motives are economic. He says orders are sporadic and so exact figures are hard to pin down, but one lion cub tends to go for $3,000-$5,000. In the right market, with the right client, the cost can go as high as $10,000.

Current Lebanese animal welfare legislation consists of just three sentences and calls for a maximum penalty of less than $15. In addition, it is rarely enforced—Animals Lebanon states “extensive research has not shown this law used even once in the past twenty years.”

And though Lebanese parliament voted in July to become the 176th member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, few here seem convinced that the trade of exotic animals will stop.

Because the trafficking of exotic pets is illegal in Lebanon, it’s hard to know exactly how many wild animals are smuggled into the country every year. The pet store owner estimates there are around 40 locations in the country that keep exotic pets on private or public display—from zoos to pet stores and even family homes.

“The phenomenon of keeping large ‘dangerous’ animals as pets appears to be gaining popularity in the Middle East,” writes Richard Thomas, communications coordinator for the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC International, by email. “We receive regular report[s] of … Cheetah, Lions, Tigers, etc. in that region.”

A lion is rescued by Animals Lebanon from an Egyptian circus. (Photo courtesy Animals Lebanon)

Lebanon and Syria are not the only countries implicated in this trend. Jason Mier, executive director of Animals Lebanon, says that in addition to “at least four zoos in Damascus,” Central and West Africa are hotbeds for wild animal smuggling.

Mier, who worked on animal welfare issues in a number of African countries before coming to Lebanon, says poverty drives the exotic animal trade in many countries. He says he saw vendors in the Congo selling baby chimpanzees for $20, an amount that represents a “huge profit when people on average earn 23 cents a day.”

According to Mier, other countries that supply Lebanon include South Africa, Ukraine and Bulgaria (where Mier says you can rent a lion cub for a day). According to the pet store owner, crocodiles are often smuggled through the airport from Malaysia labeled as “fish.”

So who is buying and raising these animals? Especially at time when the Lebanese middle class is struggling with electricity and water shortages?

“The keeping of exotic animals as pets is centuries old,” explains Thomas. “Cleopatra is believed to have owned a pet leopard named Arrow and possibly even a pet tiger too.”
But history aside, Thomas says prestige among Lebanon’s upper crust is the real reason people want to have exotic pets.

“…[T]he impression I have is that it has become something of a fashion/status symbol to own a dangerous pet,” he writes, “which is why it’s growing in popularity.”

According to the pet store owner, the secluded villas of the Lebanese elite outside Beirut are the destination for many of these animals. They are kept in cages or allowed to roam in fenced gardens.

Souraya Mouawad grew up in such a villa, one that was briefly home to a doomed leopard named Moulou in the 1970s. Speaking on the phone, Mouawad, who was born and lived in Africa as a child but moved to Lebanon as a teenager, fondly remembers the adored childhood pet.

“My father bought a big house in Tripoli with lots of space and he went back to Africa. We settled there—my sister, my mother and my aunt. When my father came back he brought us a 3-month-old leopard.

Foxes are one of the few wild animals native to Lebanon that are kept as exotic pets. (Photo by Carine Mechref)

“We named him Moulou. When we first got him … we stayed at the Carlton, a five-star hotel. The valet parking man who was wearing white gloves brought steak for Moulou to eat. Moulou slept in the Carlton hotel garden that night and when we woke up he had broken all the small plants and trees.”

As infants, wild animals are often cute and manageable. But Mounir Abi-Said, founder of a wildlife preservation in Aley (a town northwest of the capitol), says wild animals are often locked in small cages and left in poor conditions once they become older, more dangerous and more expensive to care for.

“Moulou was an adult at one year,” says Mouawad of the leopard’s transition from a cuddly playmate to a wild animal. “He ate 10 pounds of fresh meat a day and drank 5 liters of milk.”

Despite the family buying a large parking area so Moulou could get his necessary exercise, Moulou suffered from back paralysis and couldn’t run.

“We didn’t know he should be in Africa and not with us,” says Mouawad, who is now founder of Animals Pride and Freedom (APAF), an animal rescue organization.

As danger from Lebanon’s civil war rose in early 1975, Mouawad and her family decided to return to Africa, but Moulou couldn’t travel in his condition.

After numerous attempts at finding a new home for the leopard, Mouawad’s father had the animal secretly euthanized just as the family left for the airport.

When Mouawad learned the truth years later, it caused a deep rift between her and her father. “I didn’t eat at the same table with my father for four years and I didn’t talk to him for four years,” she says.

The vervet monkey is commonly found in Lebanese pet stores. (Photo courtesy of Carine Mechref)

Exotic pets often meet tragic ends. Owners are faced with the reality of a full-grown wild animal in their house and among their family. For some, like Mouawad, there is an emotional attachment; in other cases the animal is simply an accessory that has grown inconvenient.

Mier remembers one recent case when a chimpanzee was left on the side of the road next to a private villa. Despite the poor conditions, Mier was unable to do much legally and it took months to convince the owner to hand over the chimp to Animals Lebanon so they could relocate it to a sanctuary.

Lebanon’s lack of laws—and the government’s inability to enforce them—pose challenges to animal rights supporters. While it doesn’t replace national laws, Mier maintains that CITES’s framework will help Lebanon develop proper laws as well as educate officials to take appropriate actions toward the wild animal trade.

“[In other countries, CITES] slowed smuggling and saved some animals from going extinct,” said Mier.
Mier contends that it will take more to slow the “multibillion-dollar industry” that is the exotic animal trade here.

For Mouawad, it is a practice that still stirs up personal heartache. “Poor Moulou,” she says softly. “He had a bad end.”

Justin Salhani is a Lebanese-American reporter/journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He primarily covers politics, security and cultural affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Just this week, I heard stories about an exotic fish store in Seattle’s International District. Not the one you’ve seen. Down an alley, behind an unmarked door… this goes on right here in my own town.

  2. this has no relevance, but thats kind of rude and unsafe for the Lion cub to be a round a man smoking. He shouldnt be smokeing around the animals, especially when carrying the. just saying. :0)

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