x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

I remember my friend's white tiger - and the day it died

There is nothing cool about owning a wild animal that has been mutilated just so that your friends can play with it and take photos.

We used to look forward to spending a day at Jude's house. She owned a pet we all dreamed of having: a white tiger. She built a whole realm of trees, toys and even a fake pond for it in one of her mansions' gardens. She named it Kimba, after the 1960s Japanese animation Kimba the White Lion, and she truly loved him.

It was the late 1980s in Saudi Arabia, and we were innocent children. There were no awareness campaigns against buying and keeping wild exotic animals, and in circuses performing, often abused, animals was normal. No one kicked up a fuss over animals' rights, certainly not in the Middle East. Let us not forget that it wasn't until the 1990s that moviemakers began to consider the humane treatment of animals during filming.

I remember how cuddly Kimba was, and how it would run around its well-ventilated paradise and be allowed inside the house, especially inside Jude's room. We would forget it was a wild animal as it chased a stick with a sock tied to it.

Its teeth were not removed or filed, thankfully, but I did notice that it had no claws.

Just to illustrate how ignorant we were, what bothered us girls most was that we were unable to give Kimba a manicure.

"Baba said this way Kimba would not ruin the house and would not scratch me," Jude explained.

I didn't understand why my parents were upset when I told them about Kimba's missing nails. They would never allow any of our pets to be declawed. They were ahead of their time, even though I don't think they actually knew it was like cutting off the first digit of a toe or amputating the tip of your finger. Veterinarians say that when claws are removed, so are essential nerves, muscles and bones. My parents didn't know any of this; they just felt it wasn't right or natural to declaw animals.

I had cats of all sizes in my house, mostly rescued ones, including one semi-wild desert cat that hopped over to us injured. Even after this small cat got used to us, it still liked its own space. Despite their warnings, I pestered them to get me a panther, like Bagheera from Walt Disney's The Jungle Book, who would, I promised, be my best friend.

"He would protect all the smaller cats," I insisted. Besides, so many of my friends had wild exotic animals, so why shouldn't I?

That was then. Now it's obvious that people have no excuse for buying wild animals, especially those that are endangered. Everyone is aware that it is illegal to smuggle and sell rare animals - and how painful and cruel it is to file teeth and declaw a living creature. Any vet who does this should have his licence revoked.

Almost everyone was horrified by news about the poor cheetah that was caught roaming the streets of Abu Dhabi earlier this week with a broken paw and a heavy chain around its neck. It looked so exhausted and hurt, and had been declawed as well.

As if that wasn't bad enough, some people completely missed the point of a recent story in the The National on the illegal trade of animals in local souqs. I received a forwarded BlackBerry message on that story: "You can buy a baby tiger for just Dh35,000."

I got so angry and tried to find out from whom my friend had received the message, but she is well aware of my animal advocacy.

"I won't tell you, you would go and punch them," she said with a laugh.

A police officer I once interviewed has told me horror stories of nearly dead baby animals being smuggled. He would get very upset at seeing them mistreated and sold like toys.

"People like them when they are babies, and then when they get older, they don't know what to do with them," he told me. "And the poor animal ends up mistreated and chained away from any human contact."

There is nothing cool about owning a wild animal that has been mutilated just so that your friends can play with it and take photos.

Little Kimba died when it was just two years old, but we never found out why. It went to sleep one day, and just never woke up.

rghazal@thenational.ae