Spotted: cheetahs kept as pets
By Peter Townson
Although Qatar is signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there have been a number of reports of cheetahs being paraded around public places including schools, and a number of veterinary clinics told Gulf Times that they had been approached to offer assistance to the owners.
And despite legal restrictions, some practitioners have been offering their services to the big cats’ owners, justifying their work on the basis that “if we don’t help, then no one else will”.
Their efforts may well help keep a litter of cheetah cubs, or an adult cat alive, but they are still contributing towards a mindset that dictates: “These animals are like pets – we can take them to the vet in the same way as if they were a pet cat or dog,” an animal activist said.
A local vet, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that he had been visited on a number of occasions by the owners of cheetahs, asking for his services in treating sick and dying specimens.
Another member of staff at one of the veterinary practices here explained that she had also been approached by owners looking for help.
“I actually had one man contact me who owned a male and female cheetah who had produced a litter of cubs,” she said, adding “he asked me to ‘de-claw’ the eight cubs as he needed to present them to other members of his family as gifts, and one of them had already scratched one of his children.
“I was astonished when he told me he thought he would release the male cheetah back into the wild in Africa,” she said, adding “how could he expect an animal that had been living in captivity in a domestic situation to have the necessary survival skills to live in the wild again?”
Gulf Times spoke to the director of the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation, Dr Sven Hammer, who voiced his concern at the number of ‘wild animals’ which are being kept as pets throughout the country.
“A cheetah will always remain a wild animal. When they become mature they usually change their behaviour from a cuddly cat to a real wild animal which means that they become unpredictable or even aggressive,” he said, explaining that the usual methods of attempting to deal with this are declawing and removing the cats’ canines.
“This is clearly an abuse since the animal cannot behave naturally and this cruel procedure is often done by unqualified vets leading to a lifetime of pain for the ‘pet cheetah’,” he explained, adding “professional vets refuse such an operation, because it is against the ethics of wild animal and animal welfare.”
Dr Hammer claimed that he had been approached many times to ask for such operations over the past 10 years in Qatar, but had always refused.
He said he has heard about people feeding their cheetahs with “milk, cheese or canned cat food”, because of a belief that by not feeding them meat, they will remain placid.
“This superstition causes many health problems – deficiencies, bone deformities, blindness and others,” he explained.
“When the owner loses interest in the animal or it becomes difficult to handle, the cheetah is released in the desert or simply left in a tiny cage,” said Dr Hammer.
He said that the way to prevent people owning wild animals is to promote awareness and legislation.
“Capacity building is the only sustainable measure in our opinion,” he said, adding “people have to understand that threatened species are no inexhaustible resource.”
“The best way to start with this is in school,” he argued.
He also said that the existing laws needed to be upheld and that everyone needed to be called to account, regardless of social standing or connections.
The animals are reportedly smuggled through Bahrain which is not signatory to the CITES treaty, and another common route is simply to drive from Saudi Arabia. All these cheetahs are poached from the wild as cubs and this significantly affects the wild cheetah population.
Dr Hammer pointed out that any animals that had been kept as pets would not be able to survive if released in the wild, claiming that they would “die a wretched death within a short time”.
There are legal ways of keeping threatened species in captivity, but there are many legal requirements and procedures that must be followed before an owner can be approved.
“Before you receive the legal papers and permits you have to prove you have the skills to keep the particular species, and representatives of the authorities will visit to make sure the facilities meet the given standards,” explained Dr Hammer, adding “this is something that should be implemented here”.
He described the necessary requirements for keeping a cheetah, such as a 400 sq m enclosure featuring natural vegetation, shade, rocks, hills and old tree trunks. This should include a separation area and there are also specific dietary requirements as well. During summer months in Qatar the cheetah should have access to methods of cooling such as air-conditioned rooms and water irrigated areas.
Asked whether there could be people breeding cheetahs in Qatar, Dr Hammer explained that they are “one of the most challenging cat species breeding wise”, but claimed it would not be impossible, adding “it is very questionable whether one should target breeding threatened species just for the pet market”.
He described the legal situations surrounding the ownership of cats such as cheetahs as a “difficult issue”, but argued that something must be done to improve enforcement to ensure that the animals are not brought in for unsuitable owners or paraded around in public.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org