BEIRUT – Peering through a window stained by its paws, a lone bear cub awaits the next customer. A sign outside touts a brief encounter with the little animal – separated from its mother in a scorching cage covered with excrement – for 50,000 Lebanese liras, less than three US dollars.
Similar signs stand near the enclosures of snakes, monkeys and rabbits, which were put to work as Lebanon imploded.
The country marks a year since the cataclysmic explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut and much of its waterfront on Wednesday, horrifying the world. The August 4 explosion killed at least 214 people and injured 6,000 more after a warehouse fire containing ammonium nitrate. The Lebanese economy was already in free fall, which the shocking event only accelerated, endangering the lives and health of most of its citizens – as well as animals. While the maxim is true that a society can be judged by the way it treats its animals, some people in Lebanon point to zoos as the symbol of the country’s collapse.
“There is not a single soul in this country that has not been touched by this crisis we find ourselves in. These animals are living proof that we have lost touch with our humanity,” said Safi Chdid. of Beirut.
Hyperinflation, the 15-fold collapse of the national currency, and the scarcity of many essentials have removed meat from the country’s military menu. On Tuesday, the World Food Program said it “now supports one in six people in the country, more than at any time in its history.” For carnivores under siege in zoos, staple food is even more out of reach. A kilo of beef or lamb now costs the equivalent of an average monthly salary before the economic collapse that plunged much of the country into poverty. Like the dancing bears of Central Asia, the animals in Lebanon’s zoos now literally perform for their supper – centerpieces of an industry that can barely afford to keep them alive.
“Since August 4 of last year and the accidents that followed in the form of power cuts and the further depreciation of the lire, it seems that all forms of life in this city are starved for air.” Lebanese citizen Elio Alam, 29, said. “It is difficult for ordinary citizens to obtain electricity, medicine and meals, I can imagine how animals are. These animals are also victims of the socio-economic drift in which we find ourselves. just locked in cages waiting to die, I’m afraid the worst is yet to come.
Alam says he has avoided Beirut since the explosion and lives in a mountain house. He is not alone. A once wealthy middle class is fleeing the country in droves. The large Lebanese diaspora remains a salvation for the country: without the ability of millions of expatriates to send new dollars to families back home, the governance crisis could have led to a greater humanitarian catastrophe.
Meanwhile, activists in Lebanon say they receive dozens of emails every week about the plight of the country’s captive animals.
“People want to help, but zoo owners are not cooperative,” said Jason Muir, director of Animals Lebanon. “These animals lead miserable lives, kept in sterile cages. The economic collapse has also strained Animals Lebanon’s ability to hold zookeepers to account – 80% of the organization’s funding comes from NGOs or local Lebanese – all of whom have been squeezed by a crisis. not like the others.
In July, Animals Lebanon helped rescue two bears, Homer and Ulysses, which were flown to Colorado. Their new home is a long way from the South Lebanon Zoo, and their kidnapping was a rare moment of salvation for animals now in danger of being abandoned.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado recently received the two bears, who are now recovering with green grass under their feet and large spacious enclosures, where the sky is visible to them for the first time in years. They may not be the last to be transferred.
Animal City, an aging zoo nestled in a valley 10 miles north of Beirut, has been the subject of complaints even before the current crisis. Animal rights activists have suggested that the standard of care for up to 40 different species is inferior and cruel. On a recent visit, excited children attending a birthday party were yelling at a teddy bear. A zookeeper pulled on his short leash as he looked stunned in front of the crowds and the cameras.
“It is unfortunate that the zoo chooses to exploit the animals and allow the public to interact with them for money,” said Pat Craig, executive director of The Wild Animals Sanctuary. “We are ready to help provide a home for more bears and other animals that could be saved from this horrible zoo.”
Chdid, who has said the treatment of animals shows a lack of humanity, has little hope for his country.
“I feel like I’ve been living with this heavy load since the explosion. I see the destruction site every day on the way to work; you can’t escape it,” Chdid said. “I don’t envision a bright future. I saw how easy it was to lose our lives, homes and livelihoods in a matter of minutes, and no one has been held responsible yet. I doubt it is. ‘they never are. “
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch reported that senior Lebanese officials were aware of the risks posed by the highly explosive materials stored for about six years in the port of Beirut and did nothing to protect the public from it.
In a 650-page report titled “They Killed Us From Inside,” the New York-based group published dozens of documents and exchanges between Lebanese officials on ammonium nitrates.
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at HRW, said that “everyone named in the report knew of the dangers posed by the material and had a responsibility to act and did not act under international law.”
“It is a serious violation of human rights. It is a violation of one of the most fundamental rights, the right to life, ”she told The Associated Press.
Last month, the main Lebanese investigating judge in the case, Tarek Bitar, announced that he intended to prosecute senior politicians and the former and current security chiefs in the case, and called for authorization to prosecute them.
Those named in the investigation – including the outgoing prime minister, lawmakers and senior generals, have so far failed to appear at the prosecutor’s office, citing that they enjoy immunity as members of the Parliament or needed special permission from the Prime Minister or Minister of the Interior. appear.
Contribution: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Beirut Explosion: People and Animals of Lebanon Suffer One Year Later