Sharjah Bird and Animal Market has come under the microscope following an undercover investigation by Gulf News. The picture is used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Sankha Kar/Gulf News archive

Dubai: Animal rights are a sensitive issue, especially as it raises very strong reactions. Gulf News has always championed the cause of animals and their need to be treated fairly, ethically and with respect.

However, our community of readers has been repeatedly raising the issue of the Sharjah Bird and Animal Market with us through emails, comments and social media posts, with many complaining about the poor conditions. We decided to follow up and seek some answers to the issues raised.

Watch a video taken during our visit below

The Sharjah Bird and Animal Market has a rather notorious reputation. More than 500 Facebook users comprise the online group ‘Shut Down Sharjah Animal Market’ that protests against instances of animal cruelty there, and many UAE residents continue to express anger towards the facility’s callous actions after Gulf News published reports on the market readily selling illegal animals, a few months’ ago.

To examine whether the premises have undergone an overhaul, we went undercover to scout the facility.

Walking into the market’s building, we were hit with an acrid stench of animal waste, which instantly lowered our hopes of finding the center in a better state. The visit was at around 10am on a Ramadan week day, which explained the lack of visitors and few closed stores. A peek into these stores showed the animals residing in cages in dimly-lit rooms, with neither an open window for ventilation nor an air conditioner for cooling.

At the sight of visitors, several shop owners jumped up to usher us into their respective stores. A majority of the animals first presented were birds.

We asked a shopkeeper where we may be able to find something special to gift a friend for her upcoming birthday. He steered us into his store and pointed towards a pair of parrots. One, native to the Amazon, and the other, brought in from Nepal, appeared fit. The shop owner had even taught the Nepali parrot a few phrases in Hindi. He was frank about the origin of the birds and informed us that he has an agent that sources him these birds - we soon found out that every shopkeeper had their own agent whom they worked closely with.

The same store displayed a falcon perched by the window.

“On sale for 5000 [dirhams],” said the owner.

After attempting to bargain with him, he explained that his agent, who brought the bird in from Pakistan, guaranteed him several more to come this season. He gestured to the breadth of the store and said in Urdu: “There will soon be a line of them. Come then. Maybe it’ll be less.”

As he grew more acquainted with us, he admitted that he didn’t want to sell us the bird as his leg was fractured.

 

To even present an unfit animal for a probable sale is a legal offence, according to Federal Law No. 16 of year 2007 ‘Respecting Animal Welfare’, Chapter 3, Article 4, Section 7.

Other shops were also less than attentive to the upkeep of their birds. While looking through a window of a store that was closed at the time, we observed a cage - no larger than a 30 gallon aquarium tank - that housed two grown male peacocks and three hens. This cramped situation caused visible discomfort, and is in clear violation of UAE law, which is the shop owner’s duty to ensure comfortable movement of animals. This is according to Federal Law No 16. Chapter 5, Article 4: ‘Free Movement of Animals’.

Wandering around another store, we found a cage of pigeons. Filled with several of them, the cage was evidently unclean as two dead pigeons lay in a corner, as the other pigeons moved around the cage. When this was brought to the shop owner’s attention, he remained fairly indifferent stating that, although he presented us animals from all ends of the store, he owns the right half of it and so was not responsible for disposing of the dead birds in the far left cage.

Animals of other species were found closer to the central courtyard of the facility. Domestic pets like dogs and cats were kept in cages here. Kittens appeared malnourished and scruffy, while dogs looked drowsy and ill. One particular store sold a husky. Although the canine can survive outside its familiar cold weather, adequate care is needed to ensure their wellbeing. Like the other shops, this, too, had no ventilation but had one fan, which was aimed directly at the store owner.

In 2011, Dr Anders Rhodin, Chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of IUCN, reportedly claimed the following: “Turtles are in serious trouble. They are some of the world’s most endangered vertebrates, more than mammals, birds, or even highly endangered amphibians.”

Our team very nearly stepped on two small turtles that moved around one shop freely. The shop owner’s response to our surprise was lax, he shrugged and said that they are usually fine.

While walking down the main corridor of the facility, a member of the team observed caged iguanas. A store owner across the hallway informed us that his lizards are far more impressive. Behind a stack of cages was a long cage on the floor that housed about 5 iguanas about 3 feet long in length. Another shop owner who was mopping the floors at the time opened up the cage and yanked out a lizard to present to us closely. As the lizard resisted his grip violently, the shop owner assured: “He’s scared. It’s okay, you can hold it”.

As our team grew more serious about the purchase, we asked whether the men had papers for the lizards that they claimed to have been brought in from Africa. A member of the team then asked to see the papers. The men conversed in hushed tones in a Urdu, which translated to: “What do we tell him now?”

One spoke for the other and stated that if we were to purchase the lizard immediately for a discounted price of Dh500, he would fax us the papers by the evening.

We then saw a store that was closed but interestingly enough placed a photo of a child and a deer on its window. A nearby shopkeeper came by to tell us that the man that owns the shop sells baby deer from his house. His contact number was written close to the photograph, and we were instructed to give him a call if we wanted to buy a deer. The man delivered the animal straight to your door step within 24 hours of your call, apparently.

All in all, the visit did shed some light on fact that the Bird and Animal market had seriously curbed its trading of illegal and exotic animals. However, there has been a lack of implementation of federal statutes that protect the welfare of animals. Complacent attitudes of shop owners can lead to serious maltreatment, and evidently even death in some cases. Federal law No 16, Article 22 on Penalties clearly states that violations can lead to fines of up to Dh20,000.

The writer is an intern with Gulf News