Unsung heroes of Dubai Zoo share spotlight on last day

Animal handlers reminisce about eventful journey as they are honoured as zoo closes to the public after 50 years

By Sajila SaseendranSenior Reporter
06:00 November 6, 2017

Dubai: When Mohammad Riaz joined Dubai Zoo as an animal keeper in 1985, he was aged just 20. The Pakistani national, who had moved to Dubai with his parents ten years before that, had no experience in taking care of animals.

In the last 32 years, however, Riaz has become a seasoned animal keeper with immense practical knowledge about various species of wildlife, including big cats and apes and how to handle them properly.

Riaz, now 52, was the seniormost among the many unknown faces who took care of the animals at Dubai Zoo who were honoured by Dubai Municipality on Sunday as the 50-year-old attraction closed its doors to the public.

“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Riaz recollected. “I was scared initially as we had to handle the animals without any protection for us. But I followed the guy who was taking care of them before me. In six months, I learnt everything and I could handle them by myself,” he told Gulf News.

Riaz recalled catching a cheetah that had been on the loose in the street. “It got inside the house of a British man. We chased him outside and netted him without anything special to safeguard us whereas there were cops waiting outside with guns to shoot it down if it had not fallen into our trap.”

First and last DSF show

Taking snakes, tiger cubs, and baby chimpanzees to the handful of malls in Dubai for a show — for the first and last time — during the first Dubai Shopping Festival and one of the gorillas’ attempt to escape from the zoo will are incidents that still remain fresh in Riaz’s memories.

Having lived in the staff quarters in the backyard of the zoo for 30 years, Mohammad Nazrul Islam from Bangladesh now feels the animals are part of his big family. “We have been living with them. It was a bit strange initially. Now this is our family. We have been waiting for the day to go to the Safari.”

Abu Shahin from Bangladesh, who joined the zoo in 1998, recalled how he took extra care of Digit, the male gorilla, when it fell very sick three years ago.

“We had almost lost him. I paid special attention to him and used to visit him even at night. By God’s grace and with good treatment, he became alright.”

Dr Reza Khan, who served the zoo for 25 years, including 20 years as its head, said the zoo workers had not just taken good care of the animals.

“They also built many cages and other structures in the zoo.”

Bouquets and brickbats

Abdullah Ali, who served as head of animal-keeping unit at the zoo for seven years, recalled that the zoo staff received both bouquets and brickbats from time to time. “Some people used to shout at us saying the zoo is small and there is no place for animals. Heat was another problem. But, we had tried our best to keep them cool and take care of them in this limited space. Though we will miss this zoo, we are happy to take the animals to a better habitat.”

The 30-member team, including administrative staff, were given certificates of appreciation and gifts — including an iPad — for the zoo workers. They said it was the first time they received gifts and appreciation for their work.

“We are very happy about it. We hope that the municipality will also increase our salaries and give us promotions when we go to Dubai Safari,” said Mohammad Basheer Abdul Karim who has served the zoo for 30 years.

Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general of Dubai Municipality, honoured Dr Khan and Ali besides the zoo’s veterinarians and other senior officials at the municipality’s headquarters.

The animal keepers and other workers were honoured by Khalid Sultan Hilal Al Suwaidi, director of Leisure Facilities Department at the zoo.

Lootah and Al Suwaidi praised the officials and employees for their efforts in taking care of the animals and managing the zoo. They also wished them success in their new roles at the new Dubai Safari wildlife project, where all of them are being reemployed.

Scores of visitors, including residents and tourists, visited the zoo on its last day for free and shared their memories on a huge board carrying pictures of the animals preparing for the move to Dubai Safari.