A black sun bear sits in its small cage in a Jeddah pet shop, biting and striking its face with its paws. It looks undernourished and often is pelted with food by children visiting the shop.
The bear's living conditions have so riled up some visitors that they launched a campaign to give the bear a proper home at the Monkey World rescue center in the United Kingdom.
But Mohammed Wahbi, manager of the animal department at the pet shop, said caring for the bear is more complicated than animal rights volunteers suggest. He said the shop was originally caring for the bear as a service to a customer who never showed up to claim it.
“We are working on the paperwork because many people complained about it and we are trying to send it back to its home country,” he said. “We tried taking care of the bear but it is a wild animal that breaks everything that we install for him. We offer him milk, bread and water every day.”
Lobat Asadi, founder of the Society for the Protection of Endangered Animals in Saudi Arabia (SPESA), a non-profit Facebook group that documents treatment of exotic and endangered animals in pet shops, circuses and other public places in Saudi Arabia, said the bear's health is in poor condition.
“The bear has been stuck at the pet shop for at least five years," she said. "It is malnourished and gets little water. Volunteers have now found a home for it in the UK, but the Saudi authorities have to arrange for it to leave the country and take it from this pet shop.”
“We hope Saudis and the wildlife commission will see the case and that this will help to educate people about animal protection and the proper treatment and living conditions for such exotic, wild animals,” said Asadi. “We do think Saudi people and the wildlife commission care, we just think that there is a lack of employees and systems in place to help these animals and educate people.”
The Commission of Saudi Wildlife Authority did not receive any complaints about the pet shop, said spokesperson Khaled Al-Basry. “We encourage people to call us and send an official complaint about this issue and other issues so we can look into them,” he said. “As soon as we receive a complaint we start investigating on the matter to save animals and keep them in a healthy environment,” he added.
The sun bear has its natural habitat in tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, northeast India, Bangladesh and countries with similar climates. The bear is not threatened with extinction, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List identifies the sun bear as "vulnerable". The bear eats fruits, including figs, and insects. It can be domesticated.
Arab News checked on the bear’s condition and found it locked in a small cage suffering from heat. There was a small metal bucket with no water and pieces of torn bread were scattered on the floor. The bear was biting itself and smacking its face. As soon as he saw visitors, he ran to them and tried to stick his face through the bars of his cage.
Emma Johnson, a British nanny, said she visits the bear almost daily and feeds him honey and grapes. She said there is nothing for the bear in the cage.
“I spoke to an employee and told him that bread is not a healthy diet for a bear. He said that only the manager could change the food. The bear has to have fruits and honey in his daily meals,” she said. “The animal is always thirsty from our hot weather and I told the manager to give him more water. He told me they once had installed a water pipe for him, but he smashed it. What do they expect? It’s a wild animal?” she wondered.
Visitors throw popcorn and tease the animals, said Johnson. “Many school trips head to the pet store to see the animals and they are free to scream at them unsupervised. People who work there do not give instructions.”
Saudi volunteer Jawaher Abbar has been involved in a dispute with the pet shop that goes back more than five years. “The bear was placed in a small cage with a hard asphalt floor. The pet shop informed me that this was a temporary thing and they were looking for a bigger space with a suitable environment,” she said. “That was more than six years ago and the bear is still in the same situation. It needs medical and psychological attention. “The pet shop does not respond to public pressure. Why would they want to keep the bear when they don’t get anything in return from it? People can visit for free and the bear does not add to the income of the pet shop."
Hussain Al-Jubaili, manager of the pet shop, said the animal is cared for daily.
“We make sure all cages are clean by hosing them down with water every morning. We have an in-house veterinarian who checks on all animals every three days,” he said. “The bear is Australian, he is 6 years old and he is not for sale. He is here simply for the entertainment of our visitors and their children. If people want to feed him or any other animal, they are free to do so,” he added.
The volunteers are signing an online petition to present to the Saudi Wildlife Commission. Their goal is to reach 3,000 signatures. Find the petition at http://chn.ge/NriCEh.