BEIRUT: Omega the chimpanzee spends his days in a cage, smoking cigarette ends. Originally trained to perform tricks at a restaurant, he soon became too strong – and too unhappy – for his role, and was sent to live in a zoo in southern Lebanon.
Now 12 years old, he has not seen another chimp, or climbed a tree, in 10 years.
Animals Lebanon – a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to educate for “A better Lebanon, one animal at a time” – has taken up Omega’s cause.
They first became aware of the zoo last March, after an email from a concerned supporter, and since then held a series of meetings with the zoo’s owner.
He finally agreed to close the menagerie – which was damaged by the 2006 summer war with Israel – but the responsibility for re-homing the animals now rests with Animals Lebanon.
Jason Mier, the NGO’s executive director, said: “It’s on us now. It’s a small zoo, and we hope to find homes for some of the animals, such as the ducks, geese and rabbits locally.”
This is not so easy with an adult chimpanzee, but Animals Lebanon has now found a suitable home for Omega, over 10,000 kilometers away, in South America.
A dedicated chimpanzee reserve, The Vargem Grande Paulista Sanctuary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has offered Omega a permanent home.
The NGO wants Omega to be re-homed as soon as possible. “Hopefully he can start his journey within three weeks. But transport is the hard part,” Mier said.
Import and export permits have now been issued by the respective governments, and the NGO is in talks with Qatar Airways to organize Omega’s flight to Sao Paulo.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t as simple as just buying a ticket. First they need to find a plane that can carry live animals, and then pay for the cargo – a heavy load considering Omega has to be transported in a metal cage weighing around 200 kilograms.
“At $10 or $12 per kilogram, this is quite an expensive flight,” Mier added.
The NGO is asking for donations (via their website animalslebanon.org) to help with Omega’s safe and prompt transit to his new South American home, where he will interact with other chimpanzees for the first time in a decade.
The sanctuary in Sao Paulo will offer Omega a home as close to his natural environment as possible. It is specialized to house chimpanzees, and already has two groups of the apes, previously rescued from circuses.
There are also six baboons in the zoo, which The Princess Alia Foundation in Jordan – a wildlife rescue center – has offered to take, and a hyena and porcupine for which Animals Lebanon is still looking for new homes.
Getting Omega settled in Brazil is a short-term achievement for Animals Lebanon.
However, there is a bigger picture – that of prevention of cruelty to animals in the first place – with which they are also focusing on.
They have been lobbying the government for tighter regulation concerning animal welfare in Lebanon, and the agriculture minister, Hussein Hajj Hasan, has recently signed a decision on tighter entry requirements for primates.
The NGO is currently finalizing draft animal welfare legislation which will be presented to the government before the end of the year.
It will detail laws regulating zoos, and the trade and private ownership of endangered species, such as chimpanzees, which are facing extinction in several of their original habitats in the wild.