When the August 2015 death of a lion cub finally made news this past July, one could tell that Lebanon’s perception of animal welfare had changed. Not in recent memory had one animal’s death made so profound an impact on the country, the public’s outrage harnessed by activists demanding new rules for their protection. Late last month, the Ministry of Agriculture delivered, issuing a ministerial decision regulating the ownership of big cats. Just how the nonprofit behind it all, Animals Lebanon, was able to lobby the government toward regulation and attract wealthy backers (like the owner of this publication, Antoun Sehnaoui) is an interesting story that serves as an example to other nonprofits looking for change.
Last August, the lion cub, Queen, died of complications resulting from severe malnourishment. In the care of a private owner, the cub had shattered its legs jumping from a couch before being sent back to the zoo it was purchased from, Animal City. This year in July, AFP reported that Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb pledged rules that would clamp down on big cat ownership. The minister delivered, issuing a decision at the end of August that would limit possession of big cats (tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs and cougars) to zoos and rescue centers registered with the government. Those owners not qualifying to possess big cats are to turn the animals over to the ministry or other accredited facilities.
Even into August, there was not much hope the government could, or would, do much about wildlife trafficked into the country and held in subpar conditions. A draft law by Animals Lebanon had been stuck in parliament since the beginning of 2015, and without it not much could be done in way of protecting the animals. In recent years, Lebanon has become a signatory to international conventions affecting animal welfare (see explainer on conventions below), but those rules have limited effect without local legislation in place. Regulation was the only remaining option, but with the minister overseeing the waste management file and garbage threatening to spill once again onto the streets of the capital, animals just did not seem like much of a priority.
The ministry had issued decision #1238 at the beginning of this year asking animal businesses (zoos, pet shops and veterinarian clinics) to register and list the animals in their, or their clients’, possession. That decision set the stage for the big cat rules, but it also satisfied another need. Without a national count of all wildlife and livestock in the country, Lebanon did not have the baseline data needed to develop a vaccine contingency plan were an infectious disease to occur. That lack of preparation was put to the test earlier this year when avian flu threatened some 300,000 chickens. The government was eventually able to stem the outbreak by isolating the diseased birds and vaccinating chickens at nearby farms. Without the January decision the government officially had no idea zoos like Animal City (see Animal City story) existed. Until early August most of the animal businesses required to register with the ministry had not yet done so, calling into question whether Agriculture Minister Chehayeb would be able to deliver on his July promise of a big cat decision.
Animals Lebanon counts some 50 pet shops within the Beirut Municipality, but the total number of pet shops in the country is not known. The Ministry of Agriculture has not yet finished registering the stores as per the January decree, and it’s questionable whether a system of self-reporting will fully capture the size of the industry. One of Lebanon’s larger chain of pet stores, Pet Mart, did not respond to requests for comment on how the new rules might affect their business, and neither did Lebanon’s other zoo, ZaZoo City. It’s not clear whether Pet Mart actually trades big cats, so the big cat rule may not affect the chain. But ZaZoo City does hold lions and tigers and, according to the text of the decision (unofficial English translation), it will have to give those animals up to the ministry if the zoo does not receive accreditation or ensure their appropriate welfare. Private owners in possession of big cats are also required by decision to turn their felines over.
The government will rely on Animals Lebanon to find rescued big cats homes abroad and cover the cost of their relocation
But there are two problems. The decision does not specify what those welfare conditions are exactly, and there is no national legislation defining them either. That leaves standards prescribed in the international conventions (see explainer on standards below), but those are not always binding without local laws. One exception was Charlie, a chimpanzee first trafficked into the country over a decade ago. Animals Lebanon was able to point to international rules requiring trade permits for wildlife like Charlie. Lebanon’s judiciary agreed, ordering the chimp’s seizure from Animal City.
Saving the animals
The other hurdle is that the Ministry of Agriculture does not have the resources to rescue these animals. Ali el-Romeh of the ministry’s animal resources directorate confirmed there was no money for such a purpose in the ministry’s budget. Instead, he said, the government will rely on Animals Lebanon to find rescued big cats homes abroad and cover the cost of their relocation – for an adult lion or tiger, that cost per animal, could be anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000, says the NGO’s director, Jason Mier. For his part, el-Romeh explained to Executive that, “I will ask this question to Animals Lebanon: ‘are you able to do it?’ If they say yes we will start with this procedure: register the animal, insert a microchip and send them to Europe or South Africa. If they tell us ‘no we don’t have the resources to rescue this animal’ then we will go with Plan B: keep the animal here, register them and keep it under our oversight.”
Animal City has borne the brunt of criticism from Animals Lebanon and other animal welfare activists that allege poor conditions at the zoo and the trafficking of wildlife, accusations that are not new but stretch back several years. Attention has centered in part on Animal City because its owner, Samir Ghattas, has chosen to publicly quarrel with activists, telling The Daily Star in early August that activists were starting a war. Activists insist the zoo has not been singled out and say the welfare of all animals, domestic and wildlife, needs to improve across the country and that trafficking must be stopped.
Fairly or not, the spotlight has shone more on Animal City because it is one of the few public places in Lebanon to view wildlife, whereas conditions at other facilities or in the homes of private owners allow for less visibility. Ghattas acknowledged to Executive, to other media outlets and in meetings with activists and the government, that his zoo does not meet the standards of captivity found at zoos in other parts of the world, though it is far from the worst, even in Lebanon (see ZaZoo City photo essay). Ghattas has also gone on record, telling Executive and others, that he buys wildlife from traffickers (except for Queen, he denies selling animals).
For several years the zoo has been at the center of controversy because it has been directly linked to incidents that have sparked public outrage. A couple years ago it was Charlie, the chimpanzee, that was rescued from Animal City (Animal City’s website still lists Charlie as an attraction at the zoo). Queen, the lion cub, is the latest example, whose death and the delayed public outrage that followed fueled efforts to pass the big cats regulation. With the weight of public dismay behind them, activists lobbied the government to pass the new rule.
Leveraging the public’s outrage over wildlife conditions has become something of a speciality of Animals Lebanon. Their strategy goes like this: once individuals get personal with an animal, they embrace it and identify with its suffering. Then you can use that connection to essentially wrench their hearts when a baby lion dies.
“You have to pick the species which people are going to care about and have some interest in. With baboons, for example, you can demonstrate those problems just as easily or, possibly, even more easily than what we have with big cats. But [the Lebanese public doesn’t feel] a connection to baboons. The vast majority of animals [at Animal City] are not in that great of condition but with lions and tigers you can see it much easier,” Mier told Executive.
Once individuals get personal with an animal, they embrace it and identify with its suffering
Though its owner surely doesn’t see it that way, Animal City has become the poster child of poor captivity conditions and wildlife trafficking, a sort of villain opposite animal rights crusaders. With the battle for big cat legislation won, Animals Lebanon will look for what can be achieved moving forward. “We can’t get the law passed yet. That’s less strong but it’s better to work through decisions even if they’re somehow weaker, than to just sit and wait. Let’s see what we really believe could be improved over the course of the next five to 10 years. But not that all of a sudden your zoo should be this sparkly, fancy place – that’s not how we work and it’s not possible.”