Majid Al Qasimi
In the UAE, it is not uncommon to hear of "someone who knows someone" who has an exotic or extremely rare pet. By this I do not mean a special breed of cat or dog, but lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). For some, such an animal is a status symbol; for others, it is simply the satisfaction of knowing they have something rare in their possession.
It's often the same old story: a cute lion cub makes a unique gift, or a cheeky monkey in a movie inspires the purchase of a "fun" companion. But while a lion cub is cute now, what about when it grows up and suddenly requires a massive commitment of food, space and training?
The illegal import of animals involves many issues that can affect both the animal and the owner. It starts with where the animal comes from and where it was caught. By separating a young animal cub from its mother, you are instantly decreasing its quality of life. These animals are essentially stolen from their natural habitat, sometimes involving the death of the mother in order to get to the cub.
Stripped from their mothers at such a young age, animals are deprived of both nurture and nutrition. Out of their natural habitat, they can be further victims of travel stress and succumb to disease.
Separation anxiety and transport and shipping, especially under illegal and hardship conditions, can often depress the animals' immune systems. Rough handling and poor quality transport exacerbate the situation.
With their undeveloped immune systems and weakened state, they are now prone to new, and sometimes lethal, diseases. As they are smuggled illegally, they are not subject to official veterinary checks.
Frighteningly, some of these diseases may be transferable to humans. In the case of chimpanzees and monkeys, the danger may be even greater as the transfer of disease is more common.
And, of course, the animal may die as the result of an infection and the improper care of its new owners - no matter how well-meaning the care may be.
If the animal has survived this roller coaster and is now a "member of the family", we need to understand what kind of animal has been acquired. Depending on the training and the treatment, some of these animals can be dangerous to humans.
Many have no history of domestication, not having been bred and conditioned to proximity with humans. In the last 10,000 years, only 14 terrestrial mammals weighing more than 50 kilograms have been domesticated. None of them are carnivores.
Yet in the UAE we find tigers and lions in homes and majlis. The danger here is that owners are not trained wildlife handlers - they have no background in how to interact with these often unpredictable animals.
This situation can result in any number of consequences: injuries or death to the owners; injury to the animal; or even interference by authorities. Many do not realise that wild animals come with wild instincts - the smallest gesture or eye contact can easily be misread by either the animal or the owner. This miscommunication can result in dangerous or even fatal consequences if an animal is threatened either territorially or hierarchically.
I have heard of other nightmare stories, such as the case of a de-clawed and de-fanged (a cruelty in itself) lion being visited by a veterinarian. Despite being "safe", the lion overpowered its so-called "trainer"' (often someone with little background in training wild animals) and badly mauled the vet, leaving her with 29 stitches. She is lucky to be alive.
Think of the entertainers Siegfried and Roy - even amid the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, and despite their experience and long history with white tigers, a split-second mistake resulted in a near-fatal accident.
These are just some of the points involved in the illegal import of exotic animals for pets. Despite the best intentions, the reality is that the way these animals are caught, transported and brought to us is often a story of unbelievable cruelty. Furthermore, we put our own lives - and those around us - at risk by keeping such animals in our domestic environment.
Just by purchasing these animals, we fuel an illegal trade that jeopardises the lives of these animals in the first place. They are called wild animals for a reason. That is where they belong: in the wild.
Majid Al Qasimi is a wildlife veterinarian focused on environmental conservation and biological sciences education