There are three lions in the dirt, silver chains still gleaming in the Dubai sun.
A footballer stands at the other end of the leash, smiling for the camera. The photograph from his winter break receives a stadium’s worth of likes on Instagram.
The world of elite football can resemble a zoo. All protein and carbohydrate needs are automatically met by in-house chefs. Players are traded between locations and are creatures of habit. Every move is watched by paying spectators.
Is it any surprise that this is where players go on their holidays?
Most recently, Tottenham Hotspur left-back Destiny Udogie posted a picture of him crouching over a vacant-looking lion, while, in a post that now appears to have been deleted, Fulham forward Rodrigo Muniz shared a sofa with a chained cheetah.
The practice has been extensively criticised by animal-rights charities.
Footballers flock to Dubai, the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), during their winter breaks because of the sun and the shopping — but also because of precedent. It is now where the majority of footballers go, attracted to a region replete with wealth and experiences to spend it on.
Historically, the Middle East has had a close relationship with falconry, with the most expensive birds now costing up to $4million. Falcons are a symbol of status — but in recent decades, the menagerie has diversified.
The Gulf elite has acquired an increasing taste for endangered animals, with charities warning that the region has become a hub for that black-market trade. It is estimated that hundreds of such animals are locked behind the doors of mansions and compounds, often declawed or having had their teeth removed to render them harmless.
Often, they end up in public and private zoos after being donated by their owners.
📸 Destiny Udogie on IG pic.twitter.com/dzqXWafcvx
— The Spurs Watch (@TheSpursWatch) January 21, 2024
Speaking in 2016, the foreman of Dubai Zoo estimated it received 10 donations each month, including “two or three” endangered species, with those owners refusing to reveal where they got the animal. In 2014, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found 120 advertisements for internationally-protected animals in the UAE — only four fewer than in all of China, long seen as the centre of that illegal trade.
Action has begun to be taken.
In November 2015, airline Emirates collaborated with charities to decorate two of its planes with images of endangered species to raise awareness and funds.
Two years later, the government outlawed the private ownership of all “wild, domesticated, and dangerous animals” there, punishable by a jail term of up to six months and a fine of up to 500,000 dirhams (£107,000; $136,000). However, these animals are still allowed to be kept in zoos, wildlife parks, circuses and at breeding and research centres — while animal welfare activists warn illegal ownership remains widespread.
Many of the private zoos still operating argue they are caring for animals previously abandoned by private owners, and insist they do not directly purchase endangered species.
So, what draws footballers in?
Visiting is expensive but not exclusive — one private zoo, frequently visited by footballers, quoted The Athletic a price of 1,000 dirhams (around £215/$275), which included photo opportunities with animals. However, several other zoos are invite-only, based on reputation — the most famous of these being The Farm, at the home of billionaire Saif Ahmed Belhasa, whose son Rashed runs a popular YouTube channel called Money Kicks, which has almost four million subscribers.
“(The Farm) is not an official attraction as such,” one source, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, told The Athletic in February 2020. “It’s no cost but you can only gain entry by invitation, if you’re in those circles.”
This brings a status element into play. What shows more power, the reasoning goes, than dominion over the so-called king of the jungle — and being invited for the privilege?
It is likely footballers visit — and pay for the experience — because a precedent has been set. Think about other activities across Dubai — would Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta be eating off Salt Bae’s fork if so many other footballing figures of note had not done exactly the same thing?
Footballers visiting private zoos is nothing new, and in recent years Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, Luka Modric, James Maddison, Reece James and Jesse Lingard have all posted pictures of themselves doing so in Dubai.
The interest in big cats, though, takes it to another level.
The psychology of elite sport appears to accentuate footballers’ desires to be seen with animals such as lions, for example, which have connotations of leadership, aggression, and awe.
“Lions don’t concern themselves with the opinion of sheep,” is one popular caption on players’ Instagram posts.
“Lions don’t compare themselves to humans,” said Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2017, when asked why he did not include himself in his list of the Premier League’s top strikers.
Atletico Madrid and Netherlands forward Memphis Depay has a tattoo of a lion which covers his entire back, and titled his autobiography Heart Of A Lion.
“The lion on my back represents me,” he said in 2022, “I got it done in Manchester. It took a long time because it’s so big, maybe like 24 hours in total. The lion is for me, ‘the king of the jungle,’ and I always stayed on my feet even though it was rough.”
During the Covid-19 lockdown several years ago, Depay posed with a liger — a zoo-bred hybrid which is the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger — letting the animal climb on his back, and carrying it through his home.
In response, two French animal rights charities, 30 Millions d’Amis and Code Animal called the photos “unacceptable” and “disastrous”, telling sports news outlet ESPN they would consider legal action.
Depay replied: “For those who don’t know the facts, shut up. The ligers are not even wild animals. They are not born in nature but with humans. I don’t think they would survive in the wild.”
Some such interactions can be light-hearted.
Diego Costa’s introduction as a Wolves player in 2022 — posing with a pack of actual wolves — is one good example, while former Roma and Napoli centre-back Kostas Manolas looked terrified when a lion roared next to him during his unveiling at Sharjah FC, a UAE-based club.
Others are infamous.
In 2017, Welsh rugby union player Scott Baldwin attempted to stroke the head of a lioness at Bloemfontein Zoo ahead of a match in South Africa. He got bitten — and needed four operations as an infection spread up his arm.
The video of the incident below is not for the faint-hearted.
“When you see the video it looks very quick, but for me it felt like a lifetime, it felt as though I was staring into its soul,” Baldwin told the Daily Mirror.
Other sportsmen have also met with controversy for the circumstances of their interactions. Former Manchester City defender Jason Denayer attracted fury when he posted a video of himself walking a leashed tiger last May, while Manchester United’s Scott McTominay was filmed playing tug of war with a tiger at Fame Park, another zoo in Dubai.
This act was criticised by the RSPCA (the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), who said: “Whilst we understand that some zoos may feel that a ‘tug of war’ provides physical enrichment for big cats… we feel this activity promotes respect for these wild animals and should not be marketed for public entertainment.”
Animal-rights charities continue to raise awareness of issues around private zoos, arguing that many of them do not do enough to minimise the risks of animal trafficking, and that the standards of care they provide are not suitably regulated.
“It’s hard to understand how, in today’s world, some people are still oblivious to the ugly consequences for big cats used as photo props,” Elisa Allen, vice president of programmes for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animales (PETA), tells The Athletic.
“Cubs are cruelly and prematurely separated from their distraught mothers and may be violently beaten into submission, drugged, or subjected to painful declawing to make them ‘safe’ around visitors.
“Reputable establishments never, ever allow direct interaction between wild animals and the public, and PETA calls on footballers to give a red card to such exploitative enterprises and set a positive example for fans by acknowledging their mistakes and removing any social media posts memorialising the sad encounters.”
“Cats in captivity suffer major welfare concerns, unable to fulfil their natural behaviour, leading to frustration, poor health and stereotypical behaviour,” adds Nicholas Clark, wildlife leader at Eurogroup For Animals. “Placing images of these animals on social media normalises the practice of interacting with them in captivity. It is very difficult for viewers to identify the welfare impact when they can only see a glimpse (through a short video or image), but these wild animals suffer from huge stress and fear.”
Despite the game’s massive societal reach, there are some issues in which football’s capacity to achieve change is overstated. This is not one of them.
Status symbols become status symbols because people of status do it. If the practice becomes passe or outdated, it often stops. Photos from footballers and other influencers are its currency.
At an individual level, it might be hard to convince players of the moral argument for stopping — but clubs have power here.
Their employees sign contracts that prohibit certain activities, and where clauses refer to protecting the club’s reputation. Examples include banning skiing holidays for risk of injury or avoiding posting photographs with political or controversial figures, while clubs are increasingly careful over the risks presented by the likes of “white saviour” charity activity.
These photo opportunities reflect badly on players — and by extension, their clubs. They are easy to legislate against.
Taming a lion can be a symbol of power. But symbols lose their power when they are overused or exposed as false idols. There is no taming occurring here.
Standing by a stupefied lion? That is a symbol of something else entirely.
(Top image designed by Eamonn Dalton)
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