When a day at the zoo, in Metn, ends in tragedy

The incident speaks volumes about the safety regulations and animal abuse in Lebanon’s zoos

When a day at the zoo, in Metn, ends in tragedy

A lion reacting to the presence of visitors in a glass cage at Animal City. This "attraction" is offered by the zoo on social media. (Credit: Screenshot from a video posted by the zoo on YouTube)

Monday, Dec. 13, was a sunny day at Animal City, in the Metn town of Zekrit, where little Jude and his family thought they were having a moment of tranquility and exploration. Their visit soon turned into a tragedy, though, due to a lioness attack that nearly killed the four-year-old boy, leaving him scarred and severely traumatized.

“The lion’s enclosure involves three cages that are open to each other,” the victim’s grandfather, who declined to be named, told L’Orient-Le Jour. “The lion and lioness were stretching out in the middle cage. Two of my grandchildren stood to my left, while the third, Jude, headed toward the feline’s enclosure for a closer look.”

That was when the dread attack happened. “In a split second, the lioness left her initial cage, rushed outside the bars to where Jude was standing,” the grandfather recounted. “The lioness brutally grabbed hold of him, and tried to get him into the cage.”

“My driver and I rushed to save Jude from the feline’s clutches. We succeeded, thanks to divine providence and our good reflexes, but he suffered several deep injuries to his neck, chest and hand. As we were trying to save him, my driver and I were injured as well.”

The grandfather, who is a physician, was able to rescue his grandson. “I immediately noticed that there were no vital blood vessels affected. I took him immediately to the hospital where he underwent several surgeries and a psychologist took care of him.”

In a husky voice that can still be heard several weeks after the tragedy, he told L’Orient-Le Jour, “No one can even think that there is need to be cautious, and that the most basic precautions are not respected around a cage of wild animals.”

Wide gaps between bars of cages

According to Jude's grandfather, the incident could have been avoided had the zookeepers taken the necessary safety measures. He told L’Orient-Le Jour that the cages were poorly maintained and that there was a lack of personnel surveilling them and protecting the visitors. “This incident can be explained by the fact that bars that are spread too far apart are the only barrier separating the animal from the visitors, amid a total lack of other safety measures,” he added.

Jude's parents – who are, respectively, English-Australian and Lebanese – lodged a lawsuit following the incident. The family lives abroad and was on vacation in Lebanon. Their lawyer, Hassan el-Mawla, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the case is now before the courts and that the zoo will remain closed until the probe is over.

“Our case is mainly based on a Penal Code article in accordance to which negligence and recklessness are punishable with a sentence ranging from five to six months in prison, in the event that the harm inflicted does not incapacitate the victim for more than 20 days,” Mawla added.

“There is also Article 27 of the law for the protection and welfare of animals, which details the procedures to be followed and the public safety measures to be taken at zoos,” he said. “Failing to comply with these measures could lead the perpetrator to receive a prison sentence ranging from three months to two years.”

He also pointed to other violations made by the zoo owners, according to him. “Immediately after the attack, they made all efforts to get rid of any evidence of possible negligence on their part, including to restructure the cage and the safe areas around it. However, my clients insist that at the time of the incident, no safety measures had been taken,” Mawla said. “In all zoos in the world, potentially dangerous animals are kept several meters away from visitors, where water obstacles and glass barriers are used. This was not the case at Animal City.”

The family's attorney also referred to circular number 2252/a/2021, which Mount Lebanon’s governor issued on Dec. 20, 2021, “shutting Animal City to the public (...) until the standards in force are met.”

The governor indicated that the incident occurred “due to a failure to adopt the necessary measures to ensure the safety of its visitors,” and that “the zoo did not obtain a legal license.”

An ‘exaggerated’ story?

The zoo management denied these accusations. Alain Lichaa el-Khoury, attorney at Gesco Entertainment which runs Animal City (owned by Samir Ghattas), told L’Orient-Le Jour that since its opening in 2005, no such incident [had] occurred at the zoo.

He described the family’s version of the story as ‘exaggerated,’ and affirmed that the owners have taken all safety measures, including the installation of a set of steel barriers and low walls, similar to the one built in front of the cage where the incident took place.

“An additional barrier was erected between the cage and the visitors’ pathway, and it was there when the incident occurred. This barrier can certainly be moved, but only an adult can do it, not a little kid,” Khoury added, pointing out the responsibility of the adults who accompanied the child.

“I was not present in the premises, but logically, the child would only be able to access the cage with the help of an adult accompanying him, perhaps to take photos for instance,” he said.

The lawyer insisted that the firm is “ready to assume full responsibility for the compensation for any physical and psychological injury of the child, in the event of current or future damage.”

Khoury also denied all accusations that zoo staff had tried to remove evidence after the incident. “There was no intention to tamper with the scene of the incident or to violate the law. The judiciary and the Antelias police station dispatched a team to check the security measures adopted in the zoo,” he said. He maintained that, contrary to what the Mount Lebanon governor indicated, the zoo is legal.

Far from an isolated incident

Activist Ghina Nahfawi, who has long advocated for animal rights, brushed aside Khoury’s argument, pointing out a “clear and obvious negligence on the part of zoo owners,” which puts visitors and animals at risk.

She noted that the zoo's web page and social media pages show that visitors are in proximity to the animals, feeding them, touching them and even carrying them in their arms, which is “unacceptable and is strictly prohibited by international regulations.”

These remarks are supported by testimonies other parents have made to L’Orient-Le Jour. They claim that this is not the first violation at the zoo. One mother recalled the day she took her three-year-old daughter there in October, and the zoo offered visitors the opportunity to approach newborn lion cubs, pet them and feed them.

“There was a separate queue to buy an extra ticket. I found it absurd to see people taking selfies with these poor animals,” said the mother. The female lion cubs born in June, evidently separated from their mother, were shown to visitors all day long.

The mother herself suffered a misfortune. At its entrance, the zoo sold bags of fruit and vegetables so that visitors could feed the animals themselves. “My daughter handed a quarter of an apple to a boar, but [despite] the mesh [between them] the animal bit her hand. I had to push the animal away to get it to release her hand. We walked around the zoo, but there was no emergency station or employees to report the incident to. She only had a few bruises, but she had to take antibiotics because we did not know if the animals were well vaccinated,” the mother said, adding that warnings were posted on enclosures. “But that does not measure up to allowing us to feed the animals.”

“Animal City has broken all the rules,” Nahfawi added. “We have plenty of evidence that the animals are being treated cruelly. As for the lions, the zoo had installed a glass structure a few months ago to allow visitors to approach them and provoke them.”

A video of this attraction went viral on social media. The activist noted that this absurd episode is correlated with the lioness’ aggressiveness. “This can only frustrate the animal, which would then identify the human as an enemy and a predator.”

Malnutrition, probably due to the economic crisis, could aggravate this behavior. “Each lion eats an average of 10 kilos of meat daily, again according to Animal City’s official website,” the activist further said.

‘We do not have the authority to close zoos’

“Most of the zoos in Lebanon do not comply with international standards and the necessary safety measures formally defined in the animal protection law of 2017,” Nahfawi said, blaming the agriculture minister who “should have decided to close the zoo immediately, without giving the owners the opportunity to tamper with the scene.”

“What happened,” she concluded, “is a crime against the lion and the child.”

L’Orient-Le Jour contacted Agriculture Minister Abbas Hajj Hassan who defended himself against accusations of negligence, saying that confusion prevails over the enforcement of the 2017 animal protection law.

“The text is very clear, but confusion prevails over its enforcement and the prerogatives of the authorities and ministries concerned,” he said.

“A license for the zoo is not obtained from the Agriculture Ministry, but is granted by the municipalities and the governor, who are directly affiliated with the Interior Ministry. Hence, it is not up to us to order the closure of the zoos if they do not comply with regulations.”

The minister added that his administration, which is responsible for testing the animals to ensure that they are not suffering from diseases transmissible to humans, can only sanction such an institution in this specific case.

Hassan called on all stakeholders to meet in order to determine the responsibilities of each. “If the distribution of tasks requires us to take action when it comes to incidents like that, we will assume full responsibility,” he said, and called on the municipalities and governor to take the necessary measures in the meantime.

These official statements seem unimportant to Jude’s grandfather. “The image of the lioness trying to devour my grandson has haunted me ever since,” he said. “I am traumatized for life.”

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

Monday, Dec. 13, was a sunny day at Animal City, in the Metn town of Zekrit, where little Jude and his family thought they were having a moment of tranquility and exploration. Their visit soon turned into a tragedy, though, due to a lioness attack that nearly killed the four-year-old boy, leaving him scarred and severely traumatized.“The lion’s enclosure involves three cages that are open to...