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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A zoo at home

A family in Kharkiv gives shelter to three lion cubs
24 January, 2006 - 00:00

Lately it has become fashionable, especially among the rich, to own exotic animals. Some buy gorgeous parrots and energetic monkeys; others demonstrate their love of cold-blooded crocodiles and snakes. However, few risk keeping large and active predators. The owners of Kharkiv’s private animal nursery “Wind of Dream” had long dreamed of experiencing communication with large, wild cats. As the result of a lucky circumstance, the Yefremovs are now the proud owners of three African lion cubs, who at this age look more like charming kittens.

For pet lovers, visiting Tetiana and Serhiy Yefremov is sheer delight. Once I stepped inside, I was greeted by jet black Riesenschnauser pups. One can only imagine the joy the owners feel when they play with these funny creatures; the nursery numbers 20 Zwergschnausers and Riesenschnausers. You cannot ignore these clumps of fur, in which you can hardly find the eyes. Needless to say, the sight of huge and playful “kittens” in the spacious kitchen made me laugh as I watched their stunts. Seeing a stranger enter their habitat, the three lion cubs pricked up their velvety ears, but quickly got used to me and started showing an interest in the new visitor. Their “stepmother” Tetiana Yefremova enjoyed telling me about the pets as they were trying to jump onto the windowsill to look out the window, which was too narrow for their huge bodies. She talked to the incessant accompaniment of the cubs’ demanding mewing; they wanted to be taken to the courtyard. Finally, the door was opened, and the cubs dashed outside, instantly heading for Kazbek, a mongrel pup whose size matches theirs.

Tetiana is a trained physician and Serhiy is a veterinarian, a former chief canine specialist with the Eastern Regional Customs Station. After the dogs, they started bringing birds and monkeys into their home and their budding nursery. They had to spend more time looking after the pets and decide about their priorities. The Yefremovs quit their jobs and officially registered their nursery about ten years ago. Today they specialize in breeding dogs and exporting and importing exotic animals, mostly from South America and Africa. There were no problems opening the nursery; there were many orders and the people living next door treat the animals well. Local vets not only trust the nursery owners, but also recommend their services. Their hobby turned into a favorite occupation, and the poultry yard started ringing with the voices of Jacko parrots, macaws, and Amazons singing and speaking in different tongues, as well as pheasants and other birds. Now the cages are empty, as the threat of bird flu is preventing the transportation of birds across the Ukrainian border. The Yefremovs are losing a lot of money, because prior to the quarantine they had ordered and paid for shipments of birds. They are now being taken care of temporary owners across the border, who are demanding money for their upkeep. Birds are mostly ordered by private owners.

Some people want to have home terrariums. For them, non-poisonous snakes, anacondas, boa constrictors, giant lizards, and caimans are shipped to Lviv from overseas. Keeping reptiles is the hardest task emotionally. Tetiana admits that giving a live rabbit to an anaconda is heartrending. Customers who order monkeys are told that the more advanced the primate the greater the damage it can inflict on the home. All potential buyers are thoroughly checked and given detailed instructions, along with recommendations concerning cages, because the animals are wild and cannot be left to roam freely. Once the Yefremovs were asked to get a puma that could be kept on a leash, sleep in the owners’ bed, and ride in their car. Such unrealistic requests are proof that not everyone realizes that animals must be treated with caution and a sense of responsibility. An acquaintance of the Yefremovs, an animal trainer, turned out to be an irresponsible person, who wanted African lions for his circus act. But when the 45-day-old cubs were shipped from the Mykolayiv Zoo to Kharkiv, he canceled the order for reasons best known to himself.

Nicky, Night, and Nafa are now three months old. They are very playful cubs and during their stay in Kharkiv have gained weight, from 3 to 15 kilos. The owners of the nursery, despite the problem with their former customer, love the cubs and believe that the actual difficulty with their upkeep is the food, the cost of which is too hard on the family budget (each cub now eats 1.5 kg of meat a day). They also need constant attention. Every morning, after sleeping in a warm cage, the cubs happily run up to Tetiana and Serhiy, snuggle up to them, begging to be picked and held. It is winter now, so the cubs are not allowed to stay outdoors too long. When the Yefremovs are at home, the cubs are with them. Their favorite pastime is playing with a ball, gnawing at a leather armchair in the kitchen and PC wires, and watching television. Nafa is smarter than her brothers, and when Serhiy steps into the room, she begs to be picked up, because she knows that in his arms she will have a better view from the window. When the small predators were first served meat on the bone, Nafa was the first to realize that human hands could be used to make the meal more comfortable, because they could hold the bone while she ate the meat. Although they may look almost identical, every cub has a definite coloration and character. Night has more spots that will disappear when he is older; he is also friendlier and has been shown on Kharkiv television. Nicky is the most tranquil of the cubs and likes to sleep. An interesting observation: the cubs prefer contact with women and treat men a bit warily; getting used to men takes longer. I experienced the extent of Night’s affection for the fair sex when I squatted down to take pictures of Kazbek and Nicky playing in the yard and suddenly felt strong paws on my shoulders. Despite their young age, these animals are strong and it is clear that they will soon grow up. Then playing with them will leave you with more than bruises. When they are one or one and a half years old, the teenaged cubs will have reached adult size and will weigh some 200 kilos. After their second birthday the young lions will become increasingly aggressive, so they will have to be kept in cages, under expert supervision. In principle, big predators may live in private homes because keeping them is no more expensive than maintaining an expensive car. A lion cub costs some 1,300 dollars. The main prerequisite is to look after the animal properly and take all necessary precautions, which cannot be underestimated in order to prevent another Berberov tragedy. In the 1980s, the family of the talented Baku architect Lev Berberov got a lion cub called King. He was given the best care and he grew into a mature lion. He starred in the popular Soviet movie The Adventures of Italians in Russia, but his career was cut short when he was shot by a militia officer, who thought the animal was aggressive. Berberov died six months after his pet and never finished a book on his experiment to tame the animal. Shortly afterward his widow Nina and children Roman and Eve got another lion cub. The domesticated lion fatally mauled Roman and seriously injured the mother. The lion was later shot by the militia.

So far the lion cubs, with their round ears, spotted flanks, and big, trusting eyes look touchingly innocent. When you carry them, their paws dangle and swing like those of a cat when you pick it up. But these small lions will not allow you too much frivolousness and will quickly demonstrate their own willful character if they find something not to their liking. Tetiana led me to the cages to show the other nursery inmates, and the cubs followed us. It took the two of us to push the three stubborn pets out of the room and shut the door. Inside the room a small, frightened kangaroo was running inside a cage, but the mongooses in the cage opposite merely turned their interested mugs in our direction. In the yard a pup and a lion cub picked a mock fight, rolling around like balls of snarling fur. Seeing me heading in the cubs’ direction, the pup Kazbek ran ahead of me and started barking. “He’s jealous,” explained Tetiana. Unfortunately, the owners of the nursery and its inhabitants will soon have to part with the lion cubs. The Yefremovs are considering several offers to trade the cubs for other interesting animals.

* * *

Today there are no restrictions on keeping wild animals at home. The Verkhovna Rada, however, is considering a bill “On the Protection of Animals against Cruel Treatment,” which was passed several times by parliament but vetoed by the president owing to some technical discrepancies. Article 5 of the bill, which may be ratified in the nearest future, forbids owning and breeding predators and poisonous creatures and other animals considered dangerous to people anywhere except in zoos, nurseries, and special research centers. The president did not object to this clause, so keeping lions in homes will soon become illegal.

By Maryna HOLINA, Kharkiv