Abused wildlife finds a friend in Arabia

Times Staff Writer

The parrot met an unfortunate end. Got loose, he did. Skittered across the floor, out the door and took flight, landing in a place where parrots ought not to land.

“It’s a bit embarrassing,” said Ronel Smuts, manager of the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center here, suppressing a smile at the curious ways of fate. “Someone left his cage door open, and he got out and flew toward Zulu, the lion. Zulu was startled when this colorful thing dropped into his pen. But he figured it out. The parrot became a midmorning snack, and Zulu had a blue feather sticking out of his mouth.”

Life can be tough on the edge of a desert emirate where sand stings and the sun hangs like misery by 9 a.m. Smuts oversees a menagerie of exotic and endangered animals rescued from smugglers, airports, bazaars, palaces. Some arrive bone thin, others were abused, like the lioness whose teeth were filed down by a sheik. Two African baboons were found in a car in Dubai; a jaguar was shipped in from Kazakhstan.

When they get here, they meet a South African divorcee with a tin feeding bowl and an ornery side who jokes -- one assumes it’s a joke -- that she’ll throw her crew, eight Arab men in khaki shirts and matching caps, into the crocodile pond if floors aren’t swept and cages aren’t repaired. Smuts has a soft heart for animals and a tart tongue for most everyone else; she once had 14 cheetahs living in her villa, and she’s installed mosquito zappers in the lion’s den, which, incidentally, is air-conditioned.


“The animals come first here, so I guess I’m not the easiest boss,” she said, driving her SUV over a sandy road not far from a prison and a swamp where, when the season is right, the flamingos come. “I have a hate list and a hit list.”

She also has a royal benefactor, Sheik Mansoor bin Zayed al Nahyan, a banker and equestrian with a place in line for the Abu Dhabi throne. His title makes swapping business cards intimidating, but his highness is a conservationist with connections, which in this part of the world is as rare as a penguin with sunglasses. She asks for money, she receives it, and the two of them have planted grass, built pens, imported rocks to simulate the African terrain and pushed back the ever-encroaching desert sands.

“People keep asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? You can’t save the world. You can’t protect all the animals,’ ” Smuts said. “But the one I can save, that’s what it’s about. Protecting that one animal. It’s my path, and I have to walk it.”

Smuts moved to the United Arab Emirates 11 years ago with her husband, a South African pilot who trained Abu Dhabi police to fly helicopters. The couple split, but Smuts decided to stay. In 2001, Mansoor appointed her to run what became the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center on the grounds of an old plant nursery. Many animals here were prizes on a black market fueled by war, corruption and political unrest that can lead a poor Somali family or a Yemeni smuggler to sell a cheetah that will end up caged in a souk or in the courtyard of a prince.

“Vicious cycle,” said Smuts, who has the quick eyes of a big cat on the Serengeti, scanning her wildlife center and watching those khaki-clad men, who, when they hear her voice, freeze the way gazelles tense at danger in the tall grass. She keeps a storybook about a cheetah on her coffee table and invites children to the center to teach them about cultural differences, disappearing animals and the fragility of the environment.

“Cheetahs are solitary, but the Arabic culture is very family oriented,” she said. “Arabs often ask me, ‘Why are the males and females not together? Why is the family not strong?’ I tell them this is nature. Cheetahs have sex in a burst of three to four days. The female has to be excited when she sees the male. The cheetah is counterintuitive to Arabic tribal culture.”

In her SUV, her hand steady on the wheel, the air conditioning blowing like a storm, Smuts noticed all she must do: fix that pen; stop the tortoises from eating so much grass; breed rabbits to feed the lions (the butcher’s bill is getting too high); get that veterinarian here; check on the Arabian leopard, one of only 280 left on the planet, which when sent to stud took seven months to figure out how, as Smuts put it, to contribute to his species.

“Why are we letting the number of animals go down?” she said. “Humans are just breeding and taking over the Earth. There aren’t many habitats left. Why aren’t we doing anything? It stresses me out.”

Smuts drove through merciful shade. A tortoise plodded along a fence; the crocodiles were underwater, trying to escape the 104-degree heat. The jaguar, named Antar after an ancient warrior poet, paced in his cage, his jaws powerful enough to crush a brick, and Caesar, the white tiger, who could swat a billiard ball a mile, rubbed his neck on the bars. Smuts petted him and he purred, low and gravelly, content, except that he was hungry. Smuts told him beef was on the way, and then she turned to Chance and Shaggy, two rare white lions who waited for her to mix powdered milk and calcium into tin bowls.

“I grew up on a farm with animals around me,” she said. “But when you’re not exposed to something, you can’t understand it, you can’t love it. That’s why people mistreat animals -- they don’t understand them.”

She stepped into the pen, and Shaggy ambled toward her like a big child who doesn’t know how big he’s getting.

“I’m full of hair and slobber,” she said. “I’m never going to meet a guy.”

Smuts hopped back into the SUV and drove to the center’s office, spotting more things that needed to be done but that would have to wait. Patience is the way of the desert, but Smuts is a woman who wants what she wants -- now. She smiled at her predicament and said that one day she hoped to move north, way north to Canada, where the snow falls heavy and you can hear bears and wolves in the night.