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Buying pet lions became a dangerous trend among the wealthy during the pandemic


If you ever saw the TV series "Tiger King," a reality program of sorts set in the United States, you may relate to this problem in Iraq. In Iraq, private citizens are buying exotic animals to bring home to their families, which disturbs some Iraqis who care for animals. This practice has increased during the pandemic. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.


JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In a street lined with pet shops in Baghdad, the sidewalks are blocked with cages holding cats, puppies, even a few monkeys. The more exotic animals are kept out back.


BEAUBIEN: Yeah, so there's was a 4-month-old tiger cub in a cage next to what looks to me like a hyena over there, a skunk all by itself, some dogs, there's some peacocks.

When the owner of this shop arrives, he says the pandemic was great for business, particularly the sale of lion and tiger cubs. Each one, he says, can sell for thousands of dollars, but he refuses to talk on tape. He isn't so much concerned that selling these wild animals is illegal, which it is, rather, he says the last time he did a TV interview, people trashed him on social media for feeding pounds and pounds of meat to lions while many Iraqis struggle to get by. And there's also concern for the well-being of the animals. Up the street, Marwa Mohamed, a veterinarian, confirms that during the pandemic, Iraqis have been acquiring all kinds of new pets.

MARWA MOHAMED: People interest in animals in corona is more than before corona.

BEAUBIEN: Mostly, the boom has been in cats, dogs and birds, she says. But some people have been getting wild animals, including foxes and monkeys. And then there's the issue of the lions.

MOHAMED: The lion needs special care. The lion is dangerous, and there - maybe they're dangerous to the people in the house.

BEAUBIEN: Mohamed says she's had to treat two lions recently for diarrhea. Then a third was brought in because the owner wanted its claws removed. While there are a few animal welfare activists in Iraq, far more people find the exotic pets a novelty.


AMAR MAHER: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: A YouTuber in Baghdad named Amar Maher (ph) got a young lion cub late last year. He posts videos of himself awkwardly carrying the squirming cub and trying to scare his friends and family with it.


MAHER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in non-English language).

BEAUBIEN: At the Baghdad Zoo, I show one of the YouTube videos to Haidar Malik (ph), the head veterinarian. The cub, Malek says, looks to be about 3 or 4 months old and is highly agitated.

HAIDAR MALIK: This is very wrong. And it's strange for the animal. You see, it's nervous.

BEAUBIEN: Malik shakes his head and says the trend of people buying lion cubs as pets or to make YouTube videos is troublesome.


BEAUBIEN: The Baghdad Zoo has 26 African lions. Three of them used to belong to Saddam Hussein's son Uday. Lions, Malik says, are expensive to care for. Each adult consumes about 15 pounds of raw meat a day.

MALIK: Donkey meat - if there is no donkey meat, we gave them chicken meat.

BEAUBIEN: Malik also warns that the cute cubs being brought home as pets can grow to more than 500 pounds. Iraqis have revered lions for a millennium. The mythical lion of Babylon that is said to have carried the goddess of love and war on his back is a national symbol. Malik stresses that lions are predators, and they need a lot of open space.

MALIK: Please stay away from buying wild animals.

BEAUBIEN: And he says they definitely should not be kept in someone's apartment.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.