From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Lions and Erion Veliaj: Reality and Propaganda A team from the international animal welfare group Four Paws carry Lenci, a sedated lion, at Tirana Zoo, Albania on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. It is one of three lions, Lenci, Bobby and Zhaku, at the Tirana Zoo that will be transferred to the Felida Big Cat Centre in the Netherlands for better conditions. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

The three lions whose departure had been blocked by Albanian authorities have finally been transferred to the ’Felida Big Cat Centre’ in the Netherlands last week.

The news has been welcomed after concerns were raised around the suitability of the lions’ habitat at Tirana Zoo.

The three lions– Bobby, Lenci, and Zhaku were rescued from the Safari Park Zoo, located in Fier, before being temporarily housed at Tirana Zoo in October. They were liberated from Fier, along with other animals, due to fears that they were malnourished and not being adequately cared for.

Four Paws had been trying to move the lions to the Felida but had been repeatedly stopped by the government. Authorities in Albania said this was because there was an ongoing lawsuit lodged by the owner of the Fier Zoo, citing damage caused to his property. Four Paws dismissed this as not a valid reason.

“The lions play no part in the lawsuit and Four Paws had been allowed to transfer a bear, rescued during the same mission and also temporarily placed at Tirana Zoo, to Germany at the beginning of April.”

Director of Four Paws, Ioana Dungler commented to the media at the time; “It is inexplicable to us why we cannot relocate Lenci, Bobby and Zhaku. The Albanian authorities cite a court case as the reason, but we know that the lions are not a subject of this case. The animals have nothing to do with it. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to bring bear Dushi, who we also temporarily accommodated at Tirana Zoo, to our bear sanctuary in Germany.”

Finally the Albanian authorities relented after other nations, the media, and various animal rights groups put pressure on them. Gungler thanked Tirana Zoo for offering a temporary solution, yet the Environment Ministry declined to comment.

In terms of the conditions at the zoo, Four Paws had some significant criticisms to make.

“If you see the conditions here, I don’t think you need to be an expert to understand that this is not the way to keep wild animals,” said Dungler, noting that Tirana Zoo has small, cement-floor cages. “The sun, the good care of Felida and the grass will make a difference for them.”

This came as something as a surprise to those who are familiar with Mayor Erion Veliaj’s claim that in 2015 he had started to transform the zoo. Earlier that year, the zoo and the benefits it would provide for children were a significant part of his election campaign.

Then in 2016, Veliaj boasted about the good conditions in the zoo. This was followed by claims in 2017 that the transformation of the zoo in collaboration with “one of the best architects worldwide” would take it to another level, thanks to the work of the municipality.

This same year, the municipality announced that it was planning on joining the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens through a tunnel full of “Albanian butterflies” or possibly fish. Mayor Veliaj’s last promise has been that work for the plan to transform both the Zoo and Botanical Gardens will start in 2019.

In 2017 he presented to a crowd of supporters the plan by a German studio on which they had worked since Veliaj became a mayor two years ago. To date there have not been any public hearings meeting the legal requirements, no presentation of alternatives or competitions for this plan, nor is there a single butterfly, or fish in sight. Furthermore, the plan no longer appears on the municipality website despite expectations and promises that work will start soon.

That year he also promised “exotic animals” for the children of Tirana, membership in the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as well as “research on animals and poultry”. In 2018, Veliaj met a group of children and promised them that the already-good-zoo would be even better next year.

Mayor Veliaj has continuously announced that the zoo had been transformed and has promised every year that soon the municipality will make it even better.

Four Paws now says that lions in the Tirana zoo were kept under conditions far from acceptable.

Dungler also called on the Albanian government to cooperate on future animal transfers as well as creating proper legislation for animal rights.

Albania does not currently have any laws against animal cruelty, nor any that ensure basic living and health standards for any kind of animal living in captivity.

The Ministry for the Environment are yet to respond to a question asked by Exit.al, as to whether the government has any plans to introduce animal protection laws in the country, or improve conditions at Tirana zoo.