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Animal rights activists to the rescue

Rules for wildlife welfare pushed forward on the heels of public outrage

by Jeremy Arbid

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.


Lebanon has no law protecting animals. Instead, it is signatory to several conventions that affect animal welfare through frameworks for countries to adopt legislation protecting animal health, controlling their trade and prescribing international standards for how they’re obtained, kept and cared for. Without a local law these conventions do not achieve full effect, but they do provide the necessary foundation that Lebanon needs were it to one day pass legislation.

The importance of animal health has long been recognized as safeguarding the international trade of animals and their byproducts, thereby protecting human health. Still known as OIE since its first agreement in 1924, the World Organization for Animal Health today is the responsible authority coordinating global standards of animal health and welfare relating to breeding and healthcare, transit of animals and food and byproduct safety. In 2004 OIE began codifying animal welfare standards into the agreement, and is slowly expanding into new areas of animal welfare. OIE complements other conventions in at least two ways: it more broadly affects endangered species in its standards for animal transport and in its standards for animal health. Like other OIE member countries, Lebanon needed to establish an animal vaccination contingency plan to prevent or isolate the outbreak of infectious diseases. To do so Lebanon first needed to know what animals were in the country and where they were. A January decision by the Ministry of Agriculture asking animal businesses to self-report their animal stock accomplishes that data collection. Knowing what animals are where is useful to control the spread of disease from one country to another, but the data can also be used to combat wildlife trafficking.

The main legislation in the fight against wildlife trafficking is an international convention commonly referred by its acronym CITES, the United Nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. First agreed upon in 1975, CITES protects endangered plant and animal species from exploitation by regulating their trade. Lebanon only became a signatory to this treaty in 2013.
The illicit trade in wildlife is largely driven by demand and disproportionately affects developing nations rich in natural resources that have gaps in the management of those resources along with law enforcement and trade control deficiencies. The numbers on the size of trafficking varies. The United Nations says it may total up to $150 billion every year, including endangered wildlife, logging and fishing. A report prepared for the US government estimates the trafficking of endangered wildlife and their by products between $7 to $10 billion annually, plus an additional “$30 billion to $100 billion annually and $10 billion to $23 billion annually” for illegal logging and fishing respectively. “Such figures may place illegal wildlife trafficking among the top 10 most lucrative criminal activities worldwide,” the report concludes.
The international agreement specifies the conditions under which endangered species can be traded, creates a licensing system and database to track the movement of species as they’re bought and sold, and defines conditions for shipping live animals to minimize risks of injury, sickness or cruelty during transit in line with OIE standards.
At the time of its introduction, regulating the trade was not a priority partly because there were few parameters quantifying its size. With a permitting process in place it became clear that their legal trade was a big business. A 2005 study by TRAFFIC, a monitoring NGO, estimated the value of legal international wildlife trade at $279 billion for live animals and plants and the products derived from them, for example: food products, leather, luxury furniture or medicines. CITES has arguably not slowed down their trade but instead works to protect endangered species from overexploitation by keeping their trade above the table away from traffickers in black markets that might sling species for cash to criminal groups moving drugs, weapons or other illicit products.

The United Nations connects the protocols of CITES to a convention under the mandate of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). UNTOC was adopted by Lebanon in 2005 and while it is geared toward curbing the activities of global organized criminal groups (such as money laundering, narcotics trafficking or human trafficking) it does have implications for endangered species. UNTOC indirectly affects endangered species because the UNODC prescribes wildlife exploitation as a criminal offense, works with local and national authorities to prevent environmental crimes, and is a member of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

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.


Three malnourished wolves lie in the only shaded area of their dusty cage at Animal City

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.

[pullquote]The government will rely on Animals Lebanon to find rescued big cats homes abroad and cover the cost of their relocation[/pullquote]

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.”

A hyena hiding in a shaded corner of its cage near what appears to be a pool of urine at Animal City

A hyena hiding in a shaded corner of its cage near what appears to be a pool of urine at Animal City

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.

This lioness’ cement-floored cage at Animal City is too small for her to be able to run around or do any exercise

This lioness’ cement-floored cage at Animal City is too small for her to be able to run around or do any exercise

“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.

[pullquote]Once individuals get personal with an animal, they embrace it and identify with its suffering[/pullquote]

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.”


At a high level there are several important standards for captivity that are all interrelated. The question of how animals should be held in captivity informs the question of what contribution their captivity can make to education and the preservation of endangered species. How animals are obtained affects their value to education and conservation efforts, discouraging overexploitation and illicit trading.
Once on display as the prized trophy collections of big game hunters or as a menagerie of some distant, exotic land in, say, a P.T. Barnum traveling circus. Over the late 19th and early 20th centuries, animal welfare organizations in the United States slowly worked to enact anti-cruelty laws and other legislation that affected how animals could be kept in captivity. Later legislation, following international conventions (see explainer above) pushed standards from caged captivity to enclosures and animal sanctuaries. The question asked amongst standard-bearers in the United States today is whether wildlife should be kept in captivity at all. Beyond entertainment, the expectation is that captivity should advance knowledge of animal behavior and, more broadly, our planet’s environment.
The most recent example comes from the Cincinnati Zoo, where earlier this year a gorilla, Harambe, was shot and killed in order to protect a child that had climbed into the gorilla’s enclosure. The gorilla’s shooting sparked a flurry of memes criticizing the zoo, creating more awareness of and empathy toward animals kept in captivity. In March, Seaworld, an oceanarium and animal theme park with several locations throughout the United States, announced an end to their orca whale breeding program as well as plans to reinvent how visitors will experience killer whales at the park. Instead of choreographed theatrical shows, visitors, according to Seaworld’s website, will one day view orcas in “more natural looking habitats, and with a focus on the whales’ natural behaviors…with an added emphasis on education and conservation.”
Zoos must contribute to conservation efforts and serve educational purposes. Part of how zoos in the United States contribute to conservation is in preserving populations of endangered species, fostering research of those species to broadly understand animal behavior and the impact of human encroachment on their natural habitats. Hosting researchers at zoos contributes to conservation in that sense and also adds to visitors’ educational experience. In-house or visiting experts give lectures that are seen live or replayed for future visitors. They also inform descriptions of the animals’ behavior in natural habitats as well as other materials delivered via digital mediums at the zoo or remotely.
Another important standard to note is how zoos in the United States obtain animals. Developed in response to legislation, wildlife are no longer bought or sold by zoos but instead ‘loaned’. For example, the practice of one zoo loaning an animal to another addresses both ethical and business concerns: placing a dollar figure on animals reduces their value to education and conservation purposes, increases their value to traffickers in black markets and avoids a lengthy and costly permitting process required by the US’ Endangered Species Act of 1973 when wildlife are exchanged for money.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.

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1 comment

Nadia September 15, 2016 - 2:22 PM

The owner seriously need to go jump off a cliff. Along with anybody who doesn’t understand that WILD ANIMALS BELONG IN THE WILD. That accepting the capture and contributing to the neglect, abuse, and malnourishment of animals should be against the law. The planet sucks. People are so full of shit.

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