In the last few weeks, news outlets around the world have delighted in sharing pictures of two adorable baby lion cubs cavorting with young children in a refugee camp in the war-torn Gaza strip. The two cubs were sold to their current owner by a private zoo in Rafah when they were just two weeks old and have since been paraded at football matches and other photo opportunities on numerous occasions. The owner has stated in press that he hopes to hire the lions out to theme parks and hotels in the future. Despite the positive media coverage, animal welfare experts have been deeply concerned to see these young wild animals kept as pets. Not only does the keeping of wild animals in domestic settings seriously compromise the welfare of the animals, but it also poses a very real and serious threat to the people around the animals are they grow bigger.

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Since the first photographs emerged, Palestinian animal protection NGO, the Palestinian Animal League (PAL), has been working hard with colleagues on the ground in Gaza to get the cubs to a more suitable environment. A spokesperson for the organisation, which has a registered charity partner in the UK, said that the process has been dealt with sensitively and was progressing towards a positive outcome until an unknown third party allegedly offered money to take the cubs from the owner yesterday morning; bringing negotiations to a grinding halt. Initially touted to press as beloved additions to the family, the two cubs now appear to be on sale to the highest bidder.

Following weeks of complex negotiations, a meeting was arranged yesterday morning in Gaza with the owner of zoo in Rafah (who sold the lions to the current owner), PAL representatives, the police and the owner of the lions. The meeting progressed well with PAL and colleagues initially convincing the zoo owner that it was necessary to stop breeding their big cats by implementing permanent contraception as well as securing a commitment to ensure that no more wild animals were sold to members of the public. PAL had agreed to offer to compensate the new owner of the lions the money that he paid for them (a reported $7,000) but it was made clear that no profit could be made from the lions and the compliance of the zoo with the terms of the agreement was vital in order to ensure that the rescued lions were not simply replaced in a few months’ time.

اسدAll was going to plan until the owner of the lions, who was running late for the meeting, called to confirm another organisation had stepped in and offered to give him a reported $17,000 for the cubs.  He then told the PAL representative that he wishes he had asked $30,000 and is still apparently undecided whether to let them go or not. At this stage, PAL has been unable to confirm the identity of the organisation making the offer or whether the figures cited by the owner are accurate.

Until this point, the owner of the zoo in Rafah had agreed that the best way forward was to neuter the remaining big cats in his care and had agreed that selling animals to the public was a practice which needed to be brought to an end immediately. However, as soon as the zoo boss learned of the money that might be made from the cubs, he apparently made a quick U-turn, and informed PAL and the police that he would now be considering continuing to breed, sell and hire out lions going forward.

It is believed that the organisation negotiating with the owner of the lions is an NGO from the US and the intention is to rescue the cubs from Gaza and give them a better life. It is unlikely that the organisation is intentionally attempting to enter into a commercial agreement and it may be that they are unaware that this is how their well-meaning actions are being construed by both the owner and the zoo. It is also unclear whether the, as yet unconfirmed, offer has been made with a clear understanding of the potential impact of this move on other animals in the future.

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PAL has appealed to the NGO to make direct contact with their team as a matter of urgency over concerns that, if the “sale” of the cubs goes ahead, it may be unwittingly creating a market for wild animals in the region; meaning further generations of young lions and other animals could be subjected to a lifetime of captivity and exploitation.

PAL Executive Director, Ahmad Safi, said:

“It is vital that we deal not just with the individual cubs that are currently in private hands, but also that we work to ensure that those profiting from selling and hiring out the cubs fully understand that wild animals such as these have no place in people’s homes. Getting the two cubs to safety is in everyone’s best interests but it is vital that well-meaning actions at this delicate stage do not have negative repercussions. We need to send a clear message that making money from the sale of wild animals is not acceptable.

He continued:

“We are delighted to hear that other international NGOs are concerned and willing to take action to get the lions out but it is important that we all work together. We hope that the NGO who have made the offer will contact us as a matter of urgency so that we can clarify the situation, exchange information and gain a clear overall picture of how best to approach this issue. We believe that it is important that we work together to find the best solution for these animals, and prevent future generations from suffering the same fate”.

As part of the negotiations in the last few weeks, PAL has located three more young lion cubs sent to a private owner by another zoo in the area and has reached an agreement with both the zoo and the owner to work together to find a permanent home for these animals. The zoo in question has committed to end the breeding of big cats and agreed to stop selling wild animals to the public. Mr Safi said these negotiations were at a critical stage but that PAL hoped to be able to reach a positive conclusion with both the owner and the zoo in the coming days.

One of the major challenges to working to protect animals in Palestine is the lack of animal protection laws, meaning that negotiation and education are absolutely vital as neither the zoos nor the private owners are under any legal obligation to comply with animal welfare standards.

Mr Safi said: “The voluntary nature of the agreements we are trying to forge highlights the need for strong cooperation between all parties. We sincerely hope that between all those concerned for the lions, we can achieve a happy ending for all involved”

PAL appealed for anyone with information about the proposed rescue of the lions contact PAL via email  palanimalsolidarity@gmail.com.

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