The news of an unidentified Chinese man keeping a male lion as a pet in BKK1 made global news recently- with the BBC, The Guardian and Reuters among many international media outlets picking up the story.
The Khmer Times reported that the man bought the lion in China for $10,000 and imported it to Cambodia- although as usual with that newspaper- didn’t raise the questions on how this was possible and who else was involved. This is a live, exotic animal- not a few tax-free iPhones or a box of drugs disguised as Chinese tea. The same newspaper stated that the man- later named as Zhai Xinjiang- paid a fine of $30,000- while other local news say that this was a ‘possible’ fine, not yet implemented.
Wildlife Alliance, the group responsible for seizing the animal and its care at Takmao rescue center also said that the animal had some of its claws and teeth removed- quite sensible if you want to keep a lion as a pet. But, that is the point- lions are not pets!
The Mandarin menagerie man- who also keeps goats, racoons and ostriches in his villa- appears to care for the animal- and social media, along with local news outlets and the Khmer Times have gone into a media spin PR overdrive, aiming to sow seeds of sympathy for both Zhai Xinjiang and the lion named Hei Man (Dark Mind).
This, in the writer’s own opinion, makes a mockery of both the media and the law. Some points raised in the defense of Mr. Zhai include:
- He genuinely has love for animals
This may well be the case, many people do. There are plenty of domestic animals that are perfectly legal to own- and although not advised, many dog breeds can be the same size as lions, and perhaps as dangerous- but legal to keep in a house. The lion may well be cared for now, but at little over 1 year, it will not reach maturity for another 1-2 years and weigh up to around 180kg. A sexually mature lion (it would hopefully be castrated, but finding a competent vet would be difficult) is not what you want in inner-city Phnom Penh, nor indeed anywhere without proper facilities to protect the animal’s welfare and that of the local population. “A dog is a life, not just for Christmas” said the RSPCA- an exotic cat is for never and not just for, well- never.
2. He did not know the law
Never an excuse in a foreign country. Some countries do have crazy laws and sentences- Dubai gave a Swiss man 4 years for 3 poppy seeds from a sandwich he ate in Heathrow
A British teacher was jailed in Sudan for allowing her class of 6-year-olds to name the school teddy bear ‘Mohammed’, an Aussie jailed for a year in Bali for smoking half a joint on the beach- the list goes on. Everyone knows that drug and other laws are stricter in certain countries, and most people would assume that importing a lion would also be frowned upon.
The Khmer Times reported: “Zhai also claimed to have consulted numerous people, including members of the government, to ensure that he was not doing anything illegal. He said that he often shared images of the animal on social media and no one brought it to his attention that caring for the animal was illegal.”
Either he is being economical with the truth, or others lied to him. The bigger question is who?
Mr. Zhai is obviously a wealthy man, and no doubt has a good lawyer or three in the country, and maybe he should look harder at his legal team. Ignorance, as they say, is no excuse in the eyes of the law.
3. He does a lot of work for charity
There have been pictures shared online of Mr. Zhai giving out red envelopes to children. If he can afford to pay $2000 a month, as he claims, on feeding his private zoo, then he can afford to be charitable. Perhaps he could start a foundation for either the poor, animal welfare or for environmental concerns. Philanthropy still does not give one the right to keep illegal animals in urban settings.
4. The lion does not like its new home, and should be returned
The animal will be undergoing serious stress at being moved. It will take time to adjust to new surroundings, which however cramped, would still be more suitable than a villa in BKK1. The lion is suffering, but no fault can be placed on anyone other than Mr. Zhai, who chose to put himself- and the animal- in this situation.
5. The lion belongs with him and will suffer
A possible solution for this problem is for Mr. Zhai to use his new relationship with wildlife experts, along with some of his cash, to buy a suitable area and donate to relevant authorities in order for Hei Man and other big cats in need. As benefactor, Mr. Zhai could have special access and privileges- at his own risk.
Sadly, the reality of the situation is that, if the animal begins to suffer further, or as it matures becomes more aggressive, then the only viable option is to have the creature humanely destroyed- as it already would have been in many countries.
We also need to think of local people, who would also suffer, should the lion ever escape- either through physical harm (at worse) or the panic and disruption caused by a wild animal roaming the streets of a capital city.
6. The lion is not a status symbol
‘Iron’ Mike Tyson famously kept tigers at the height of his rags-to-riches journey, Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya too, and don’t forget Micheal Jackson and Bubbles. Mexican cocaine barons are known for their exotic collections- normal people do not do this- look at Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin. A pit-bull or Rottweiler are, let’s face it, also status symbols- a lion is taking this to the extreme for showing off on Facebook and Tik-Tok. Even if Mr. Zhai is a genuine- although misguided- animal lover, he’s not in the best of company.
This writer firmly believes that such animals should not be kept as pets under any circumstances and any sympathy should be given to the lion, who did not choose to be the subject of an international press story.
THIS LETTER WAS SUBMITTED FOR PUBLICATION. ALL VIEWS ARE THE AUTHOR’S OWN AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THOSE OF CNE
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