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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Portrait of a Nation: Expert coaxed out of retirement to welcome wild animals to Dubai

Timothy Husband should have been enjoying retirement at his cattle farm near the Blue Mountains of Australia, but he couldn’t resist the lure of helping animals at Dubai Safari Park

Timothy Husband came out of retirement to oversee the Dubai Safari project, which is due to open in November. Christopher Pike / The National
Timothy Husband came out of retirement to oversee the Dubai Safari project, which is due to open in November. Christopher Pike / The National

With a lifetime of experience behind him, Timothy Husband was settling into retirement when the lure of helping captive wild animals at a new venture in Dubai pulled him back to work.

The animals at the closing Dubai Zoo had an uncertain future and, as an expert on exotic animals and as a trouble-shooter for failing zoos around the world, he knew he could assist in the setting up of Dubai Safari.

The New Zealander’s expertise in turning round poorly run wildlife parks was viewed as a key asset when he was approached by UAE authorities to take on the project, due to open in November.

Mr Husband, who studied a degree in zoology at Sydney University, has worked in zoos and safari parks in Canberra, Cairns, Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia before moving to the UAE with his wife of 24 years, Wendy.

The couple met at the zoo, and were even married in a zoo.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he said. “A lot of these animals, you can’t put back into the wild. I don’t get upset about animal rights groups, it is their job to get zoos closed down.

“Some say they would be better off if they were shot but that’s not the case when they can move to a modern facility like Dubai Safari.”

Mr Husband has held posts such as zookeeper, curator of a zoo, consultant and director of wildlife parks.

Later in his career he started a zoo consultancy business with his wife, and spent three years turning around a zoo in Cairns, Australia, that had been shut down over animal welfare concerns.

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He spent five years in Bali, bringing the safari park there up to a world-class standard and he launched a training programme in Indonesia for potential zoo workers to improve the way animals are cared for.

An interest in animals began as a child, despite considering a job as a religious minister.

His family’s love of animals brushed off on him and shaped his future career choice, although his 22-year-old son, Jordan, has chosen a different path.

Despite growing up around animals, he has chosen a career in the airline industry.

Living so close to the new Dubai Safari, much of his spare time when he’s not working on the park is spent reading up on animals, or talking to other zoos around the world.

He owns a cattle farm three hours south of Sydney, near the Blue Mountains, but his efforts to edge Dubai Safari closer to an opening date has meant he has spent little time there in the past two years.

Dubai Safari will not only offer sanctuary for rescued animals, like elephants saved from logging and industrial operations around the world, but also a breeding programme to help preserve their future in the region.

It is hoped the park will pass on important education to the next generation on endangered species and why they must be protected.

“When I first walked into Dubai Zoo, it was something I had seen before,” Mr Husband said.

“It reminded me of India, where I had worked to bring the standard of their zoos up to scratch ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

“It had been neglected, unfortunately. Old-fashioned methods had been used and that was considered acceptable - but it isn’t any more.

“I’ve always tried to instil in my staff that we are guardians and privileged to look after these animals.”

Dubai Safari will have an indoor and outdoor exhibit for two gorillas, Digit and Diana, who were smuggled into the country 20 years ago and have been kept in Dubai Zoo ever since.

“Every animal is coming to the park and we will sort them out there,” he added.

“There are a couple of old animals, a tiger and a bear, who won’t go on display – but they will be looked after and enjoy their final years in dignity.”

Mr Husband aims to stay on until 2020 but will train up a local expert to leave the safari park in good hands. He plans to return every few months.

He is one of just 10 or so similar technical directors in the world who have his expertise of running such a facility.

“I have been involved with three zoo deaths to investigate, and seen the deaths of animals. “As a technical director, you know what works,” he said.

“I had a mahout (rider or trainer) killed by his elephant in Bali, and a keeper mauled by a tiger attack in Sydney and another in New Zealand. Ninety-nine per cent of accidents are a keeper’s fault, they get too relaxed.

“I’m hoping Dubai Safari will go some way to show people here are changing their ways and that animals are not something to be owned but looked after and cherished.”

The biog

Name: Timothy Husband

Nationality: New Zealand

Education: Degree in zoology at The University of Sydney

Favourite book: Lemurs of Madagascar by Russell A Mittermeier

Favourite music: Billy Joel

Weekends and holidays: Talking about animals or visiting his farm in Australia

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