Wednesday, 23 May 2012

'Grandpa' fights for Bulgarian zoo's survival

"Come babe, come to grandpa. Don't be afraid," Behcet Ali coos as he handfeeds two eight-month-old lion cubs at his tiny zoo in the sleepy northeastern Bulgarian town of Razgrad.

At 82, Bai (Granddad) Behcet, as he is known locally, is Bulgaria's oldest zookeeper, famous for raising over 15 lion cubs during his 33 years of work and the only one to be in full contact with the predators.

Bai Behcet's unwavering devotion to saving the little 52-year-old zoo, spread over only 2,000 square metres (about 21,000 square feet), earned him the title of honorary citizen of Razgrad in 2007.

His prime concern now are the two cubs -- one male and the other female -- of six-year-old lioness Raya, who already weigh over 50 kilos (110 pounds).

"I haven't named them yet. I call them 'babies' and they understand," the zookeeper says, patting them on their backs and rubbing them behind the ears under the attentive look of their mother in the adjoining enclosure.

"To become friends with animals, as with people, you need to have a knack, to show them that you love them."

"And if people sometimes do not respond in kind when you do them good, an animal always understands and returns kindness," Bai Behcet explains.

The cubs love an iron ball he brought for them to play, tackling it with their oversized paws.

But it is quickly forgotten when he lets Raya back into the enclosure and the cubs rub against her sides, purring.

The father killed Raya's first litter but she is a very caring mother, Bai Behcet says.

"She is jealous that I love them so much but sees that I do not harm them and would not hurt me," he says, while ordering to the trio to stand still for a photo shoot.

Bai Behcet, who used to work at the local veterinary clinic before coming to the zoo in 1979, has been clawed by lions as well as bears, which he also used to raise here, but says he has never feared his charges.


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