BEIRUT — Staring from a glass window smudged by his paws, a lone bear cub waits for the next customer. A sign outside touts a brief encounter with the tiny animal – separated from his mother in a baking hot cage covered in excrement – for 50 thousand Lebanese lira, less than three U.S. dollars.
Similar placards stand near enclosures of snakes, monkeys and rabbits, which have been put to work as Lebanon has imploded.
On Wednesday, the country marks one year since the cataclysmic explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port and much of its waterfront, horrifying the world. The Aug. 4 blast killed at least 214 people and injured another 6,000 after a warehouse storing ammonium nitrate caught fire. Lebanon’s economy was already in freefall, which the shocking event only accelerated, imperiling the life and health of most of its citizens – as well as animals. If the maxim holds true that a society can be judged by the way it treats its animals, some people in Lebanon point to zoos as symbolic of the country’s collapse.
“There is not a single soul in this country that didn’t get affected by this crisis we’re in. Those animals are living proof how we lost touch with our humanity,” said Safi Chdid of Beirut.
Hyperinflation, a 15-fold collapse in the national currency and scarcity of many essential goods has put meat off the menu for the country’s military. On Tuesday, the World Food Program said that it’s “now supporting one in six people in the country, more than at any time in its history.” For beleaguered carnivores in zoos, the staple food is even more out of reach. One kilogram of beef or lamb now costs the equivalent of an average monthly salary before the economic implosion that has plunged much of the country into poverty. Like the dancing bears of Central Asia, Lebanon’s zoo animals are now literally performing for their supper – showpieces of a sector that can barely afford to keep them alive.
“Since August 4 last year and the crashes that came after it in form of power cuts and the further depreciation of the lira it seems all forms of life in this town are grasping for air,” said Lebanese citizen Elio Alam, 29. “It’s difficult for ordinary citizens to provide electricity, medicines and meals for themselves, I can imagine how the animals are. These animals are also victims of the socioeconomic lapse we are in. They are simply locked in cages waiting to die. I fear the worst is yet to come.”
Alam says he has been avoiding Beirut since the blast and living in a mountain house. He is not alone. A once comfortable middle class is fleeing the country en masse. Lebanon’s large diaspora remains a salvation for the country: were it not for the capacity of millions of expatriates to send fresh 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 each week about the plight of the country’s captive animals.
“People want to help, but zoo owners are not cooperative, ” said Jason Muir, the director of Animals Lebanon. “These animals live a miserable life kept in barren cages. The economic collapse has also taken a toll on Animals Lebanon’s capacity 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 like no other.”
In July, Animals Lebanon was involved in the rescue of two bears, Homer and Ulysses, which were flown to Colorado. Their new home is a far cry from the zoo in southern Lebanon, and their removal was a rare moment of salvation for animals now at the risk of being discarded.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, recently received the two bears, which are now recuperating 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 tucked into a valley 10 miles north of Beirut, faced complaints even before the current crisis. Animal activists have suggested the standard of care for up to 40 different species is substandard and cruel. On a recent visit, excited children attending a birthday party were yelling at a bear cub. A zookeeper tugged on its short leash, as it appeared bewildered before the crowds and cameras.
“It’s unfortunate that the zoo is choosing to exploit the animals and allow the public to interact with them for money,” said Pat Craig, the executive director of The Wild Animals Sanctuary. “We are open to helping provide a home to more bears and other animals that could be rescued from this horrible zoo.”
Chdid, who said the animals’ treatment was proof of a lack of humanity, has little hope for his country.
“I feel like I have been living with this heavy load since the blast. I see the destruction site everyday on my way to work; you cannot escape it,” Chdid said. “I don’t envision a bright future. I saw how easy it was to lose our lives, homes and livelihoods within minutes, and no one has been held accountable yet. I doubt they ever will be.”
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch reported that top Lebanese officials knew of the risks posed by the highly explosive material stored for roughly six years at Beirut’s port and did nothing to protect the public against it.
In a 650-page report titled “They Killed Us from the Inside,” the New York-based group published scores of documents and exchanges between Lebanese officials about the ammonium nitrates.
Aya Majzoub, a researcher on Lebanon at HRW, said “all the individuals named in the report knew of the dangers posed by the material and had a responsibility to act and failed to act under international law.”
“That’s a grave human rights violation. It’s a violation of one of the most basic rights, the right to life,” she told The Associated Press.
Last month, Lebanon’s lead investigating judge in the case, Tarek Bitar, announced he intends to pursue senior politicians, and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested permission for their prosecution.
Those named in the probe — including the outgoing prime minister, lawmakers and top generals, have so far not shown up at the prosecutor’s office, citing that they either have immunity as members of parliament or need special permission from the prime minister or the interior minister to appear.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Beirut explosion: Lebanon’s people and animals suffer one year later