Al Ain Zoo: A place with no shortage of big cats

Some of the world's most ferocious feline predators may face an uncertain future in the wild but at Al Ain Zoo, where members of the public regularly call up wanting to drop off a no-longer-cuddly, dangerously lethal pet, it is all about the animals' quality of life.

Zoo keeper Mayed Al Baloushi feeds a lion at Al Ain Zoo. Christopher Pike / The National
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When Mayed Al Baloushi leaves home every morning, his mother calls to him: "Be careful. Don't let the lions eat you."
In other jobs, this would be metaphorical.
Not for Mr Al Baloushi. The carnivore keeper at Al Ain Zoo spends his days with lions, Bengal tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, pumas, servals and a pair of sibling white tigers named Sugar and Spice.
"This is for today," says the Emirati, opening an enormous double-door fridge loaded with camel meat. He walks to a freezer filled with metal buckets of frozen bones, blood and camel flesh. "These are enrichment for the lions. We hang them."
Bloody ice cubes suspended in lion cages are not just nutritious, they give the lions the chance to play, too.
Even after the reopening of Al Ain Zoo's five Big Cat exhibitions at Eid Al Adha, the carnivores Mr Al Baloushi cares for face a challenge - the zoo is full. There are 25 lions, 10 pumas, nine servals, seven cheetahs, four jaguars and three Bengal tigers. There is no room for any more cats.
The Al Ain Zoo faces an unusual dilemma of an oversupply of lion donations from private owners.
UAE legislation forbids the sale of any animal on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) list without government permits. Even so, cheetah and lion cubs make popular pets and serve as status symbols. When cuddly cubs grow into instinctual killers, people turn to the zoo.
"When they start getting bigger they start showing their genetics, they show that they're a carnivore, so at this age they start to get rid of them" said Myyas Al Qarqaz, the animal-collection manager.
"It's not easy to find a place or a friend who can accept a lion."
The zoo's 25 lions are predominantly donated or descended from donated cats.
"We used to have 33 lions and this is far beyond any logical number for a zoo collection," said the Jordanian conservationist.
"It is too much for a zoo to keep in terms of space, in terms of management, in terms of cost. There is no point in having 50 lions."
The zoo stopped accepting donations more than two years ago and lions are given hormonal contraceptives so that they can maintain normal social structures and breeding behaviour without unwanted pregnancies.
The zoo has now defined its role as a conservation and education centre and will eventually keep only a small number of lions for genetic diversity. Unlike the Arabian Oryx, which are under a breed-and-release programme, lions cannot easily be reintroduced to the wild.
"Five to seven lions is more than enough," Mr Al Qarqaz said. "You should only be focused on the quality of animals, not the number. You definitely don't need to keep 33 lions, but this was all inherited.
"Ultimately we would like to reach the optimum number and focus on improving the quality of the animals themselves, their health status, their genetic status."
Most are elderly and as the years pass, the zoo will reach its ideal number. In the meantime, Mr Al Baloushi is one of 12 carnivore keepers who makes sure their retirement is as comfortable as possible.
Big animals make a big stink, and he knows it. Every day he cleans five exhibitions and 40 "bedrooms", two-metre by three-metre cages on concrete floors with elevated perches inside the big cat house.
Following the three-month refurbishment, exhibitions were transformed from flat, dusty arenas with a few palms for scratching posts, to grassy mounds with pools, trees and new rock formations. Exhibitions must be cleaned and watered daily. It takes Mr Al Baloushi and his colleagues four hours before they can prepare for the 1pm lunch.
Each animal has its diet sheet. It's not just what they eat that is important, but how. Meat rolls, bones, carcasses and bloody ice cubes are a chance for the cats to practise their natural behaviour. For Eid Al Adha, the lions were given a special treat: a camel carcass.
Male and female lions respectively eat an average of 6kg and 3.5kg of camel and beef a day.
An active mind is as important as a healthy body and the cats have a social enrichment programme. Lions, particularly males, do not always get along, but through incremental introductions behind the scenes at the cat house, they can form prides. A rotation system gives all cats daily time in the exhibition.
The zoo's largest pride is seven lions.
"It's not an easy task to make a large pride or large group of big cats together," Mr Al Qarqaz said.
"It depends on their origin, if they came as one family and they grew up together. Usually if you try to bring a group of males together this can be a very tough task. If you want a large pride you have to start from a very young age."
Interaction with humans is altogether more limited and safety barriers are kept between keepers and animals at all times.
Some cats, like cheetahs, are trained to come when called for husbandry and outreach purposes and are taught by positive reinforcement. This means that if an animal needs to be caught for any reason, they will come willingly and not suffer from stress.
Training is not unique to cheetahs. The crocodiles are trained to follow signals emitted by underwater mobile phones that indicate when and where they should jump in the air for their chicken dinner.
Big cats have been a part of the zoo since its founding in 1968.
"It was just a conventional zoo like many other zoos in other parts of the world, so the people perceived the zoo as a place to keep animals without any clear objective," Mr Al Qarqaz said. "So through history there have been a lot of drop-off animals. They buy animals as a pet, they get bored of them, they drop them off at a zoo."
The zoo is still approached on a monthly basis.
"If you are saying 'yes, I will accept all donations' you are in one way or another encouraging people to buy pets," he said.
"We have almost 4,000 animals altogether and this is a huge number to manage in a zoo. There have been no new facilities built for the past few years so we are out of space. We have very limited space to keep animals."
The priority is that the zoo gives its lions more than enough room to live comfortably and not serve as an animal sanctuary. Lions are costly creatures who can live more than 20 years in captivity. Proper care costs a minimum of US$10,000 (Dh36,700) a year.
Private owners are usually oblivious of the high costs and care required it takes to own a wild cat.
Online trade in wild cats is increasing, despite penalties of three months imprisonment and fines of up to Dh30,000 for the illegal trade in wild animals. Wildcat owners post photos of their pets in luxury vehicles on social networks.
A six-month old lion for sale on Twitter by a Dubai-based online pet shop in May last year launched a bidding frenzy with more than 100 buyers offering from Dh30,000. The owner said the cub had been bought by a friend at the Sharjah animal market.
Cat escapes have become a regular news item, with sightings in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Kuwait.
Mr Al Qarqaz hopes that a visit to the zoo will raise awareness over the importance of education and proper care.
"We tell people that we are not keeping animals just to keep them behind glass," he said. "At the end of the day it should be linked to conservation and the well-being of those animals."