A 12-year-old chimpanzee was heading to a sanctuary in Brazil on Monday after animal rights workers discovered him smoking cigarettes to entertain visitors at a Lebanese zoo.
Omega, who weighs around 132 pounds (60 kilograms), has never climbed a tree or seen other chimpanzees. But he often puffed cigarettes that zoo visitors threw in his cage.
“The chimp still regularly smokes … if someone will throw him a cigarette he’d pick it up and go for it straight away,” said Jason Meier, executive director for animal rights group Animals Lebanon.
Organizers of Omega’s evacuation say it marks the first time a chimpanzee has been rescued in Lebanon, a country with virtually no animal rights protection laws.
In his younger years, Omega was used in one of the local restaurants to entertain people and was made to smoke cigarettes and serve water pipes to customers. After he grew stronger, he was locked up and taken to a zoo where for the past 10 years he has lived in a cage measuring 430 square feet (40 square meters).
Animals Lebanon has been pushing for Lebanon to join the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, and adopt laws that regulate the importation of primates. Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain are the only Arab countries yet to sign the convention.
Chimpanzees and other highly endangered wildlife are regularly smuggled to the Middle East to be displayed in private zoos, hotels and for the pet trade.
Animals Lebanon heard about the zoo in Ansar, near the market town of Nabatiyeh, about six months ago. They have since successfully worked with the owner to close the zoo and find homes for the animals.
For Omega, home will be a sanctuary in Sao Paolo, Brazil where he is to be flown later Monday aboard an Emirates airlines flight.
Other animals found at the zoo, including seven baboons, a hyena and various bird species, are to be sent to new homes within Lebanon.