x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Having the animal prints inside the house is just an extension of who I am'

For Ronel Barcellos, the founder of Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre, animals form the heart of her life

Ronel Barcellos has more than 100 pieces in her collection.
Ronel Barcellos has more than 100 pieces in her collection.

Leopard print cushions, cheetah mugs, zebra-stripe armchairs and canvas tiger prints as loud as the roaring subjects they depict. You might be forgiven for thinking that a space like this belongs to someone of a slightly, well, wilder disposition than Ronel Barcellos, the founder of Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre. But surrounding herself with endangered species and the art and craft they inspire has been part and parcel of her own survival.

"I was four years old when I started collecting animals. My mother would open my bedroom door and find all the animals that I'd brought in from outdoors. It's just something I have always done. It's my path in life and I believe God put me here to take care of them," says Ronel, whose office reflects the constant that animals have played in her sometimes turbulent life. When she moved to the UAE 15 years ago from her native South Africa she had no idea that, within a few months, she would be losing her husband and gaining two young cheetahs in his place. Most young mothers who find themselves abandoned with two children in a strange country would leave, but when someone who knew that she had wildlife experience asked her to look after two cheetah cubs, she knew that she had found the calling that would be her reason to stay. She started taking in abandoned animals and eventually opened her first wildlife centre. Around the same time she was given a gift by a friend that would spark a passion for collecting animal-themed objects. "I got a decorative bowl that had emblems of cheetahs on it and that's what started me collecting because, after that, I would spot animal print items and buy them. Friends then started giving me things as well; anything with an animal motif: scarves, coasters, handbags."

Ronel's lifelong passion for Africa and its animals is apparent in her office - with a collection of animal-print accessories and decorative touches that give it an unmistakably African feel. Arranged in a big pot by the front door are some fierce looking spears, which Ronel promises are purely decorative. Her office is, today, at the Wildlife Centre's second, larger site - funded, like the first, by Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed. Outside are more than 100 rescue animals - lions, tigers, panthers and cheetahs, donkeys, monkeys, goats, hens and even Arabian wolves - and it's a similar story inside.

"I can't say no to things with animal prints. If it's got an animal print, I'll buy it, even if I don't need it. I have bags, cups, coasters. My friends and family buy me things too," Ronel confesses, pulling out a pile of unopened, patterned writing paper from one of her desk drawers. "I'll always find a space for it." Ronel says that her collection numbers into the hundreds of pieces but she has never counted it. "It's a collection that has grown over the years and is a combination of gifts given to me by other people, and things I have bought myself. I'll buy something and then find a use for it, especially if the animal print is authentic."

"I love lions the best, although I have mostly leopard print. I have chairs upholstered with animal prints and the chairs made in an African design, but my big office desk with the animal skin imprint was bought straight from The One, as were the tiger posters." A self-confessed homebody, Ronel has focused much of her attention on making her home a retreat from the outside world. And it, too, is filled with her beloved Africana. The kitchen window is framed by a pair of lace curtains that depict the "big five" African animals. Her kitchenware is similarly themed. Salt and pepper pots in the shape of big cats, and bowls with animal stripes make for an eccentric, albeit practical, heart of the home. "I don't notice it any more; it is normal and a part of who I am, so I don't think it's strange that my home is so wildlife-themed," explains Ronel with a shrug. Her apron depicts a wildlife scene, and her napkins and kitchen tablecloth also depict African wildlife in all its roaring glory.

Knives and spears are also part of the Africana that she regularly picks up on visits to her home country, and she has them in every room of the house. The living room furniture is decorated with leopard print cushions. The coffee table and dining table are antique wood, from Mexico and more than 100 years old. "I love furniture that's been in other people's houses, that is old and tells a story," she says.

Her favourite item is a painting of a tiger - she has about eight in total - which was made for her by a friend. "It is of one of the tigers in the wildlife centre, so it's especially meaningful." Ronel's favourite room is her bedroom, which has been given over to another animal collection. This time horses are the subject. "I love horses, and have bronze sculptures and paintings in my bedroom. It's my favourite room because it feels like a sanctuary."

"I've been interviewed many times about my collection of animals outside, but never inside," she laughs, flipping through animal print-embossed albums that sit in a pile on her carved coffee table. One features clippings from newspapers and magazines, with a page devoted to the display of a note from the actor Sir Ben Kingsley, who visited the centre. The rest of the albums are devoted to photos of her "babies". "They become like your children," explains Ronel. "The bond is very strong and the animal will recognise you for the rest of its life; having the animal prints inside the house is just an extension of who I am."

She picks up a wooden lion. "This has been carved from a single piece of wood by an African craftsman. I think people are somehow more creative when they are poor, when they are driven to survive through their creativity. I try to support that by buying items for the centre shop made by people whose livelihood depends on it." Pointing out the lion paintings on her walls she explains that all the paintings she chooses tend to have the same colour schemes. "I love earthy colours. I love wood, old furniture and I miss it a lot. I know I have to be here to do what I do, but sometimes I miss the scenery of Africa. I grew up surrounded by nature, so I continue to surround myself with it in my office and my home."