Tale of pets best kept in the wild

The International Fund for Animal Welfare is publishing a book aimed at teaching children why the exotic animal trade is wrong.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 30, 2011: A cheetah recovers at Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre on Monday May 30, 2011.  Yesterday an adolescent cheetah was found wandering the streets of Al Karamah this morning with a broken paw and wearing a broken chain.  ( Andrew Henderson / The National )

DUBAI //A children's story book about a boy and his lion cub aims to help change attitudes towards keeping exotic animals as pets.

The illustrated book, called Nasser and Shabool, is being produced by the Emirates Dogs Breeders Society in co-operation with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The book explains why lions and other wild animals should not be kept as pets, and it will be distributed to pupils in Grades Two to Four in schools throughout the country at the start of the new academic year.

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The subject has come under the spotlight after the arrest in Bangkok of a man accused of trying to smuggle exotic animals into Dubai, and the discovery of a young cheetah wandering the streets of Abu Dhabi.

In the book Nasser teases the lion cub, Shabool. Suddenly an eagle carries Nasser off and takes him to a jungle, where he finds himself surrounded by a number of wild animals - including Shabool's mother, who wants to punish him for stealing her cub.

At one point in the story the boy's father says: "Prophet Mohammed teaches us to be merciful with animals and to take great care of them."

"It's a story about exotic pets," said Dr Elsayyed Mohamed, the programme manager at IFAW's Dubai office, which covers the Middle East and North Africa.

"We're targeting the keeping of dangerous animals as pets because we know this happens here, everybody knows there is a problem of keeping dangerous animals as pets in the UAE and other Gulf states.

"This book is intended to teach children why this is wrong, and if you target kids you are targeting the family. If you succeed in spreading this understanding among children you can be sure the community will be changed after 10 years when these kids grow up and make their own decisions. They will grow up with this understanding.

"It is difficult to convince adults, usually you will not succeed, but you can convince children about what is right."

He said the book highlighted a number of reasons why wild animals should not be kept as pets.

"First, this is against conservation, some of these are endangered species," he added.

"Second, the lion is a dangerous animal. Whatever you think about it being loyal or not hurting you or your children, you are wrong. This is a wild animal, even if it is tamed or reared from a cub, you can never predict its behaviour. If it's aggressive, or scared, or hungry, maybe it'll attack.

"Third, there is a potential for the transmission of diseases, especially from primates, but cats may also transmit rabies like dogs.

"Fourth, this is against animal welfare, taking an animal from its own environment and its own group.

"You will never supply this animal with its needs.

"We would like to establish this awareness among students, so they grow up with these ideas," he said.

While the book tells the story of a lion cub, IFAW says the message it contains is equally relevant to people keeping other exotic pets such as squirrels, tortoises, snakes and lizards.

"All these animals can feel pain, so keeping them as toys is against animal welfare."

Nasser and Shabool is the third children's book that IFAW has helped to produce, but the first to address the issue of captive exotic animals.

Unlike the previous two, which were published only in Arabic, the new book will also be available in English.