Y returns to private zoo three years after investigation uncovered animal cruelty to find nothing much has changed. There are more animals – including a lion and tiger – in what one vet has described as a ‘national disgrace’. Kate Ginn reports
In the gloom of the cage, a lion lies listlessly on a concrete floor with its head hanging low. Dribbling from his mouth, the animal barely acknowledges the bangs on the bars and shouts from the small crowd gathered round outside. They have paid for this spectacle and are impatient to be entertained.
Inside the dingy 6m x 6m space that is his home, Alex the lion lifts his head and blinks, his sad eyes weeping.
This horrendous sight is not happening in a poor, far away country, where a lack of education and understanding might almost make it excusable, but right here in Oman.
Three years ago, Y exposed the appalling abuse of animals at a private zoo in Barka, where monkeys were being kept alone in tiny cages and other species were in dirty, neglected conditions with inadequate space and food. Despite demands for action, it appears that in the intervening years, hardly anything has changed.
In fact, it has got worse. Rather than reducing the amount of animals, the owner of the zoo in Barka has added to his menagerie with a tiger – an endangered species – lion, two hyenas and even a wallaby.
Hilda Fernandes, who visited the zoo with her family earlier this month, contacted Y after being appalled at what she saw and urged us to do something. “It was really sad to see the way the animals were kept there, terribly cruel,” she said. “The lion and tiger had room for only for two strides up and down, the vulture was cooped up in a small space, the hyenas did not have enough space, and there was a miserable looking Kangaroo (in fact a wallaby) kept along with doves and chickens.
“The fox was in a terrible state as was the dog. The ostrich, deers and ponies had no proper shade and children were throwing empty cartons, which the deer were chewing on. There was no proper food in their trays nor any clean water. The monkeys were just being fed by visitors.
“There should be some space between the visitors and the cages. Children were teasing the animals and booing and screaming at them. Nobody was around to monitor.
“We felt really sorry for the animals there and felt miserable after the visit. The concept of starting a zoo in Oman is really good but not if it is going to be maintained in this manner. Keeping the animals happy and comfortable should be the priority.
“I have visited zoos in Singapore and other places and have never felt so disturbed before. Please do something for the animals there.”
Magnificent birds of prey, such as Egyptian Vultures, are confined to spaces where they can’t fly while the plight of other animals, such as ponies and small mammals, is worse.
Life in Nouman Park, as the zoo is now called, is nothing short of a prison for these poor creatures. And unless authorities act to help them, there appears no end to the suffering.
We showed photographic evidence of conditions at the ‘zoo’ to a leading veterinarian in Muscat.
“This is nothing short of a national disgrace for Oman,” says Dr Elke Heitz, head veterinarian at the Al Qurum Veterinary Clinic.
“Something needs to be done. The country wants to attract tourism but tourists will complain if they ever see this.”
Dr Heitz, a member of UK’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, has seen her fair share of animal cruelty in her time and has qualifications in zoological veterinary practice.
“In Europe and America, this zoo would be classified as a criminal offence and shut down, and the owner would probably be arrested. Keeping animals in these type of conditions is not acceptable in any country.”
Photographs of the lion were particularly distressing, along with the tiger and hyenas, all species that are particularly unsuited to being kept in captivity.
“These creatures will be constantly under severe stress,” says Dr Heitz. “Cages like these are prison cells for animals. It’s like you or I being kept in solitary confinement.”
There are more than 200 species of wild animals and birds at Nouman Park in Barka, which is owned and run by Ahmed al Balushi, who started the zoo more than three years ago after his hobby of collecting animals grew.
Three months ago, he clinched his latest and by far biggest acquisition, an African lion and Bengal tiger. Big cats need specialised handling by experts who have experience of, and understand, their complex needs.
The clue to what you might expect starts from the shabby sign that directs you to the zoo past Barka Fort. A low building with graffiti on the wall signals your arrival. Expatriate visitors pay a RO1 entrance fee with nationals charged 300 baisa.
An ostrich greets new arrivals to the zoo, next to several miniature ponies. One stands motionless next to the fence, hardly reacting to sounds. Closer inspection reveals that its hooves are horribly overgrown, curling over. This would cause the little pony absolute agony, according to Dr Heitz. Little wonder it is such a pitiful sight.
Sadly, this is by no means the worst of the animal abuse that we see. It’s only the beginning.
A solitary wallaby sits forlornly on a table in one of the 6×6 metre concrete cells that pass as cages, inexplicably sharing the space with a group of chickens. Experts told us that wallabies, which are native to Australia, are shy creature needing foliage to forage and hide in and a sandy terrain. In its cage, there is nothing but the table and a concrete floor. Further along is a despondent German shepherd dog in a cage with a dirty floor, an upturned tin bowl and no sign of food or water. The only stimulation is a ripped football.
Then there is the lion, the saddest sight of all. Alex, who is 13-years-old, is a former circus animal, who spent nine years living in a trailer measuring just 2m x 2m.
He looks miserable and depressed, lethargic beyond typical lion behaviour, with a dull and matted coat and mane.
In the wild, this fully grown adult lion would roam across the African plains for up to 100km a day and spend nights hunting for food as part of a social group.
To see such a noble and dignified beast reduced to this is heartbreaking and brings tears to the eyes.
In the adjoining cage, Ruby, the nine-year-old Bengal tiger, is wedged sleeping by the wall. She is an also an ex-circus performer.
The numbers of these animals in the wild are now at critical levels. Keeping one in such conditions is irresponsible at best and inhumane at worst.
“All animals in zoos are denied everything that is natural and important to them, and that problem is magnified at decrepit and cramped facilities such as this one,” says Ashley Fruno, senior campaigner with the Asia branch of animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Studies have shown that keeping big cats in captivity causes huge psychological damage to the animals.
“Extremely bored, depressed, and deprived of everything that is natural and important to them, many animals in zoos literally lose their minds—a condition called ‘zoochosis’,” says Fruno. “Animals with ‘zoochosis’ engage in neurotic behaviours such as pacing, spinning, and bobbing their heads. They also mutilate themselves, become overly aggressive, throw feces, and engage in other abnormal behaviours not seen in the wild.”
Two hyenas snarling at each other share a similar space in the same row of cages.
“Hyenas can run up to 60km/hour, so living in cramped cages is extremely stressful for them,” says Fruno.
Throughout the park, the mistreatment of animals continues. While some parts of have improved since our last story – it is noticeably cleaner and most of the dogs cooped up in cages have been removed – it barely scratches the surface.
Monkeys are piled up on top of each other in cages barely 50cm x 50cm. There is nothing to entertain them except for the old tyre and the stream of visitors who feed them crisps, chips and juice from cartons, on the encouragement of a notice asking them to do so. Empty crisp packets litter the cage floors. The animals scream for food and reach little hands out of the bars to grab crisps. It’s far from their natural diet of predominantly fruit. “Junk food is not suitable for monkeys – or any animal to consume,” says Fruno.
We also see a malnourished looking desert fox eating a piece of a plastic bottle. Y tried to speak to the Ministry of Agriculture, which issues licences for wild animals, but did not receive a call back as promised.
We have sent photographs of the conditions to several animal charities in the region and further afield.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare Middle East & North Africa Office in Dubai is now investigating Nouman Zoo. And the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) based in London described the animal collection as “pretty grim.”
“WSPA gets many tourists sending complaints about this kind of thing and they always say they will never visit the country again. And, of course, they tell everyone they know,” said a spokesman.
Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, said: “We are alarmed to hear reports that animals appear to be starving in Nouman Zoo, fed by visitors. Establishments like this do nothing for conservation and put the lives of the animals at risk. ADI calls on tourists and locals to report incidents of cruelty at the zoo to the authorities and urge them to immediate action. If the zoo is unable to look after the animals in its care, it should be closed down.”
Dubai Zoo has come under fire for years for keeping animals in bad conditions. In February this year, it was announced that Dubai Municipality had stepped in and the zoo would eventually be closed down to make way for a new, world-class premises.
If our UAE neighbours can act, Oman must too and help the animals at Nouman Park. “People who care about animals should never visit this zoo or any other animal attraction,” says PETA’s Ashley Fruno. “Consumers vote with their dollars every time they spend money – when you choose not to spend money at decrepit institutions such as this one, you are essentially voting against animal cruelty.”
Y is asking for your help. Don’t let these animals suffer in silence. Please send a letter demanding action to firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @ytabloid. Alternatively, fill out a complaints form for the Born Free Foundation at www.bornfree.org.uk or post a complaint at www.facebook.com/IFAWMENA
Y spoke to Ahmed al Balushi, the owner of Nouman Park and asked for his reaction to our concerns.
It’s clear that Mr al Balushi has a genuine love for animals and wants to care for those in his care. The impression is that the zoo has grown too big and he is now overwhelmed and simply out of his depth.
He told us that he had bought the lion and tiger from a circus trainer in Italy.
“He told me that the animals had been living in a cage 2m x 2m for nine years and when I asked whether 6m x 6m was big enough space, he said that it was a very good area and nice for them.”
Mr al Balushi claimed that the Ministry of Agriculture had approved the big cats’ living quarters but, as we are unable to contact the Ministry, we could not confirm this.
In response to concerns about the size of the cages for Alex and Ruby, he admitted: “It is too small, I’m not happy with it. I am looking to make a bigger area for them.”
He refused to reveal how much the lion and tiger had cost but said that he had bought the big cats in the hope it would attract more business. “In our country, there is no other lion or tiger. I wanted to have them for teaching children about the animals. I wanted people to come and see them.”
Mr al Balushi, who it was reported had been working as a banquette and service manager with the Diwan of Royal Court Affairs, claims to have spent more than million rials on his own money on the zoo project.
“It costs RO9,000 a month just to feed and care for these animals,” he said. “I love these animals. I have always wanted to help animals since I was small.”
He also agreed that the hyenas needed a larger cage. He further claimed to have bought the hyenas as cubs and arranged it in Oman.
In relation to the monkeys, he denied that feeding them junk food was damaging to their health and claimed they had to be caged separately or they would kill each other.
In response to the pony with over grown hooves, it said that it had been ‘born that way.’
He denied that any of the animals were underfed or neglected. When asked, he was not able to supply the name of vets used to care for the animals.
Mr al Balushi did agree that the zoo needed improvements, including larger space for the animals.
However, he admitted that he did not have the money to fund the new enclosures or expansion and said he had been appealing for help with the zoo for some time.
“Here in Oman, nobody is helping me. I need help from the government. I have sent letters to the ministries but no one is responding.
“Everything here is licensed but I am not getting any help.
“I need help. I don’t have the money to do these things. I hope the government or maybe an individual helps me.”
Zoos can get it right and show that good animal welfare can go hand-in-hand with commercial ventures.
Top Five Zoos
San Diego Zoo – Said to be the best zoo in the world, it houses over 3,700 animals from more than 650 species in 100 acres. The zoo, based in California, pioneered the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that recreate an animal’s natural habitat.
Singapore Zoo – It’s 100 per cent cage free. Moats and glass are used instead. Opened in 1973, the zoo was built at a cost of S$9m (RO2.7m) granted by the government of Singapore.
Al Ain Zoo – Spread over a massive 990-acre site in the foothills of the Jebel Hafeet mountain, the zoo across the border from Oman in the UAE shows how it can be done with a lot of care and money. The zoo is renowned for world-class breeding facilities for Arabian species.
ZSL Whipsnade Zoo UK – With 600 acres, it’s one of Europe’s largest wildlife conservation parks where animals have huge enclosures or even roam freely. It is one of two zoos own by the Zoological Society of London – the other is London Zoo – a charity devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.
Toronto Zoo, Canada – At 710 acres, Toronto Zoo is the largest zoo in Canada and one of the biggest in the world. Dedicated to making more natural environments for its 16,000 animals, the zoo takes part in varying animal conservation efforts including rescuing polar bears.
Where money is no object, buying a lion, tiger or cheetah – sometimes more than one – is apparently easily attainable and highly desirable. According to reports, the trade in big cats in the Gulf is such that a rare white lion fetches around $50,0000. In the UAE, it has not been unknown for people to keep big cats in their apartments or garages.
Often the animals are declawed and their canine teeth filed down. Problems begin when the cats grow too big or dangerous to handle.
One owner in particular made headlines this week after being featured in a national newspaper in the UK, the Daily Mail.
Humaid Al BuQaish has attracted more than 250,000 followers on photo-sharing website Instagram to view regular posts of him posing with his collection of pet big cats. In one, he sits on top of a Mercedes with a lioness while a bright yellow Lamborghini is parked to the side. Others show a male lion on a white Porsche with a white Rolls Royce beside it.
Al BuQaish, who appears to live in the UAE, is also shown sitting in a cage with two blood-smeared lions who are tucking into a dead goat and, incredibly, with his head in a lion’s mouth. His menagerie extends to two lion cubs pictured eating a dead shark and a young cheetah with a red bow round its neck.
Another Instagram account shows a man in a speed boat with the astonishing sight of a fully-grown cheetah riding at the front. The photograph appears to be genuine.
No one is suggesting that any of these animals have been brought illegally. But in 2010, over 200 illegal animals were confiscated in the UAE. Among the animals seized were white lions, panthers and hyenas.