Dubai: A woman got the shock of her life when she came face to face with a lion cub in a white 4X4 vehicle at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR).
The shocked expat, who managed to capture the cub on her phone camera, told XPRESS that she spotted the animal near a well-known hotel at JBR on February 9.
"It was around 9.30pm and I was walking down JBR to grab a bite with a friend. I was positioned by the side of the road. As usual, the traffic was bad and as I was walking past a slow white BMW — X5 or X6 — I'm not certain — the window suddenly rolled down and out popped a lion cub!" the woman said.
Caught off-guard, she said, "I did a double-take to believe my eyes. The traffic picked up, so the car moved quickly. I tried to pull out my phone to take a picture. By this time, people were catching on, crowds were building up and multiple cameras started clicking away."
She said she was closer than most others and had managed to take "quite a close picture".
"I was trying to get closer to the lion to get a better look at the people inside when one of the guys yanked on the chain of the lion to try and scare me. The lion let out a huge growl and instead whacked the men inside," she said, adding that the occupants rolled up the window soon after and sped away.
According to the resident, "Most of the onlookers were shocked. Some were horrified, some were excited. A few came up to me and said how ignorant these people were, which is what I believe, and some sadly thought it was cool that they had a lion cub as a pet."
"These people are ignorant. They can't meet the needs of these animals. There is a reason they thrive in the wild and not in captivity, caged on a chain and being paraded in a car. This is absurd. Parading animals like this causes stress, trauma and behavioural disorders," she said and asked, "Where's the accountability?"
Reactions of other residents ranged from shock to indifference. Lola Lopez, founder of the NGO Volunteer in UAE, said, "I recall receiving a photo on my BlackBerry from my friend and being in complete shock at the content."
"This is absolutely unacceptable. The kidnapped young [animals] are forced into an environment they are not naturally prepared for, reared by people who have absolutely no idea how to care for such creatures, and are most likely forced to endure having their teeth shaved and their claws removed. Most sadly, they lose the freedom they were once destined to have. Who are we to play God? If they were meant to be city animals, that's where nature would have placed them," she added.
Another Dubai resident, on condition of anonymity, said she was hardly surprised by the spectacle at JBR. "Just last Saturday, I spotted a baby leopard in the back seat of a white Nissan Patrol which was ahead of me on Al Wasl Road. I could see the driver was nervous and was constantly trying to put the cub down with his hand."
On February 19, pictures of a tiger hanging out of another white car was widely circulated on Facebook and Twitter after it was allegedly spotted in the Dubai Marina area.
It's illegal to rear exotic pets
A leading Emirati veterinarian keen on wildlife conservation has appealed to the public against purchasing exotic animals and rearing them as pets as it is illegal and dangerous.
Dr Majid Al Qasimi, Deputy Manager-Veterinary Department, Al Ain Zoo, told XPRESS: "I would ask people to think three times before condoning the purchase of such animals because the practice is illegal and they do not have the right environment or training to keep them."
Reacting to claims of wild animals being spotted in public areas, he said, "It's a small few who take their animals out into the public [area], but they could be the tip of the iceberg."
He said: "They do it to seek attention. Everyone has a cat and dog. But having a tiger or lion hanging out of an expensive car makes them different. People start taking photos and that is the attention they are seeking."
According to Dr Al Qasimi, exotic animals can be found in three types of places in the UAE besides the wild: public zoos, private collections or private zoos and unauthorised homes in urban areas. While in the first two cases, the animals are brought in through official channels and are provided the right environment with the right facilities and amenities, the problem arises with the third category.
Dr Al Qasimi said people acquire exotic animals illegally and keep them in villas, even apartments, without realising the dangers involved.
"The first and most immediate threat is that they could be carrying diseases which can be passed on to other animals or humans. Since these animals are brought in illegally there is no way of ascertaining their health," he cautioned.
The second danger stems from the nature of the animals that have wild instincts. "Unlike rearing cats and dogs that have adapted to our behaviour through years of domestication, there's a vast difference here. You could be interacting with a baboon in a similar manner, not understanding that it may misinterpret your actions and strike back," he said.
According to him, wild animals have strong social hierarchies and structures and tend to show dominance when they get old enough. "Tigers and lions can grow close to their full size in a year's time and you don't have what it takes to keep such an animal in a residential area. And if it decides to break free, you have a problem on your hands."
He said people subject these animals to painful procedures to rid them of their canines and claws in the false belief that they would then be safe. "What they don't realise is that a predator with 150kg of muscle doesn't need its teeth or claws to do damage one way or the other,."
As Dr Al Qasimi sees it, the issue of respect for animals needs to be viewed historically. "In a short span of time, we have forgotten our roots. Our grandparents had great respect for nature and animals. We've lost touch with that because of rapid development. There is a disconnect which must be corrected through education," said the vet, who holds talks and camps to create greater awareness.
But not all is lost. "People's moral compass is pointing in the right direction. They just haven't been prompted with the right questions... People with purchasing power should find better ways to spend their money. They can perhaps buy a ticket to Africa or they can come to the Al Ain Zoo," he said, adding that they could get a feel of wild life then.
Some hyped-up instances of exotic animals found in unlikely places in recent memory include:
- A tiger allegedly hanging out of a car window in Dubai Marina created quite a buzz when pictures of it were posted in social media on February 19, 2012
- A five-foot royal python blocked traffic when it strayed close to the Al Ain City Centre in May 2011
- A badly injured cheetah roamed the streets of Karama in Abu Dhabi in May 2011
- A fully grown cheetah first seen swimming in Khalid Port strolled the streets of Sharjah in December 2010
What the law says
Laws in the UAE prohibit the import, sale and public display of endangered species.
Around 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are listed in the 175-nation Convention on the Illegal Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which aims to curb the trafficking of threatened animals.
Federal Law Number 11 (2002) on Regulating and Controlling International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (including big cats) also prohibits the sale or display of the creatures in public, without the necessary documentation.
Offenders could face fines of between Dh5,000 and Dh50,000 and a jail term ranging between three and six months.