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Animals come first in an Arabian desert sanctuary

Conservationist Ronel Smuts cares for exotic and endangered animals rescued from the black market.

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The parrot met an unfortunate end. "It's a bit embarrassing," said Ronel Smuts, manager of the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center here, suppressing a smile at the curious ways of fate. "Someone left [the parrot's] cage door open, and he got out and flew toward Zulu, the lion.... The parrot became a midmorning snack, and Zulu had a blue feather sticking out of his mouth."

Life can be tough on the edge of a desert emirate where Mr. Smuts oversees a menagerie of exotic and endangered animals rescued from smugglers, airports, bazaars, and palaces. Two African baboons were found in a car in Dubai; a jaguar was shipped in from Kazakhstan.

When they get here, the animals 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. "The animals come first here, so I guess I'm not the easiest boss," she said.


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