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At desert sanctuary, animals come first

MONDAY, JULY 7, 2008

AL WATHBA, United Arab Emirates – On the edge of a desert emirate where sand stings and the sun hangs like misery by 9 a.m., Ronel Smuts, manager of the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center, oversees a menagerie of exotic and endangered animals rescued from smugglers, bazaars and palaces.

Some arrive bone thin, others were abused, like the lioness whose teeth were filed down by a sheik. Two African baboons were found in a car in Dubai; a jaguar was shipped in from Kazakhstan.

When they get here, they meet a South African divorcee with a tin feeding bowl and an ornery side who jokes – one assumes it’s a joke – that she’ll throw her crew, eight Arab men in khaki shirts and matching caps, into the crocodile pond if floors aren’t swept and cages aren’t repaired. Smuts has a soft heart for animals and a tart tongue for most everyone else; she once had 14 cheetahs living in her villa, and she has installed mosquito zappers in the lion’s den, which, incidentally, is air-conditioned.

“The animals come first here, so I guess I’m not the easiest boss,” she said, driving her SUV over a sandy road not far from a prison and a swamp where, when the season is right, the flamingos come.

She has a royal benefactor, Sheik Mansoor bin Zayed al Nahyan, a banker and equestrian with a place in line for the Abu Dhabi throne. His title makes swapping business cards intimidating, but his highness is a conservationist with connections, which in this part of the world is as rare as a penguin with sunglasses. She asks for money, she receives it, and the two of them have planted grass, built pens, imported rocks to simulate the African terrain and pushed back the encroaching desert sands.

“People keep asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? You can’t save the world. You can’t protect all the animals,’ ” Smuts said. “But the one I can save, that’s what it’s about. Protecting that one animal. It’s my path, and I have to walk it.”

Smuts drove to a cage that housed Caesar, the white tiger, who could swat a billiard ball a mile. He rubbed his neck on the bars. Smuts petted him, and he purred, low and gravelly, content but hungry. Smuts told him beef was on the way, then she turned to Chance and Shaggy, two rare white lions who waited for her to mix powdered milk and calcium into tin bowls.

She stepped into the pen, and Shaggy ambled toward her like a big child who doesn’t know his own strength.

“I’m full of hair and slobber,” she said. “I’m never going to meet a guy.”


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