In some parts of the Middle East, exotic cats are a status symbol. Iraqis are getting in on the act too.
While some have noted that, after years of an unfriendly attitude toward canines, dog ownership is becoming a trend in Iraq, there is another beast that is also becoming more popular as a pet.
It used to be unusual but now you may see a lion as an Iraqi house pet.
Amir al-Chalabi imports rare and predatory animals to Iraq and he told NIQASH that over the past few months, demand for lions has been increasing.
You can buy a young lion for around US$400 while older, larger lions will set you back around US$7,000.
“Most of the people who buy a lion, do so when the cat is young – aged between four and 60 days – because at that stage it is still possible to tame them,” al-Chalabi explains. “Then they are not so dangerous.”
Iraqis mostly prefer African lions because the temperature is similar in the two countries.
“Raising lions is obviously completely different from rearing dogs and cats,” Ali Abdullah Salman, a breeder of lions, told NIQASH. “Anyone who wants a lion needs a strong personality and must be patient. Lions are moody animals. Additionally the owner must be able to provide the lion with what it needs in terms of food and housing.”
Even if tamed, lions still have the instinct to hunt meat and they remain dangerous, Salman adds. Some owners remove their claws surgically in order to keep the animals safer.
It is possible to buy a young lion for around US$400 while older, larger lions can set the buyer back around US$7,000. An adult lioness fetches the same as a grown lion.
The lions used to be bred in Syria and then trucked into Iraq but civil war over the border has meant that Iraqis have started trying to breed and sell them.
Tayseer al-Azzawi started off in the business with his own pet lion. Other locals often tried to buy his lion from him so he decided to get into the trade, after selling his first lion off to start his business.
“Most of the people who work in this business are from Jordan or the United Arab Emirates,” al-Azzawi says; there, owning an exotic cat has long been a status symbol. “And most of the buyers are from wealthier families, who live in big houses and who can afford to build a big cage for the cat to live in.”
“Some cat owners buy the lions so they can terrorize other people,” al-Azzawi notes. “They walk the big cats in the street to frighten people.”
Owning cheetahs, tigers and lions in the United Arab Emirates was made illegal in January this year. Even so the fashion for exotic pets was also present in Iraq. Uday Hussein, the late son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, kept lions too.
In Iraq, in 2013, the country’s Ministry of the Environment formed a committee to look into the issue, with the aim of trying to prevent traders bringing exotic predators into the country.
“The committee has taken several steps to stop the import of these animals,” Amir Ali al-Hassoun, the spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, said. “We will develop laws to prevent the raising of the animals or sale of them, and we also want to build special areas to keep the animals in the future. The committee will come up with rules for the import and export of these cats.”
The new rules will specify which kinds of animals can be sold and under what conditions, as well as ensuring that properly licensed veterinarians look after the lions.
There are actually already penalties for the owners of exotic predators who endanger public safety, Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security committee in Baghdad's provincial council, told NIQASH. “There are penalties for anyone raising these animals in residential areas,” he points out.
Often though, the lions and other big cats are sold in secrecy, away from security services. Al-Matlabi suggests that if locals in certain neighbourhoods were concerned about lions being bred or raised on their doorsteps, they should contact the authorities and assist with the enforcement of the existing rules.