By MUSA JIBRIL
If you have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm characters such as Napoleon and Snowball the political pigs, and Boxer, the super horse, Mollie the foolish mare and Squealer, the propagandist extraordinaire are strongly logged in your memory even after the plot blurs. The hard-to-forget animals, including the likes of Benjamin the donkey and Muriel the goat, make the allegorical novel by the British writer a great read.
Recently, I met a horde of real-life animals bearing human names––Hussein the horse, Jumai the donkey and Ajoke the camel––at Q-Brat Zoos and Gardens, located close to Oko-Afo on the Badagry Expressway, Lagos.
The zoo’s signposts fly by anytime I travel along the route. For a long time, a visit to the facility was on my bucket list until last Tuesday. On my visit, I met the owner, 60-year-old Prince Shakiru Adeshina Raji. Looking around me, I discovered that I had walked into a recreational park that is equipped with assorted playground equipment such as bouncy castle, trampoline, swings, slides, merry-go-round, rockers and seesaw. On a sun-drenched afternoon when the earth was baking from scorching heat, Q-Brat Zoo was a welcome haven. Cool. A sanctuary protected by leafy canopy and dense undergrowth.
The zoo’s crop of domestic and wild animals include a bale of turtles, a tortoise (177-year-old Methuselah called Papilo), a baboon called Asabe, a monkey whose name is Blessing and a vulture that is as old as the zoological garden. Other reptiles are crocodiles, pythons and monitor lizards. There is also an assortment of waterfowl–– ducks, geese, swan and herons, guinea fowl––and a lone jackal.
I wanted to know how the animals derived their human names.
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“From the names of people who sold them to us or from some of our staff,” Raji said.
The zoo owner is a man of many parts––a mass communication graduate, an advertising professional and a school owner––but not a zoologist, and certainly without a cognate zoological experience.
I was interested in knowing how he became a keeper of animals.
He told me: “As a young boy growing up in Oshodi, I used to go to the Bar Beach in Victoria Island to swim. I also visited the Biney Zoo in Yaba. That was what I used my time and pocket money for. Since childhood, I had nurtured the idea of owning a natural zoological garden.”
He began the quest in 1985 by applying to Lagos State Government for land. A limbo followed. A follow-up in 2009 brought to his attention the abandoned Ologe Forest Reserve, a five-hectare forest reserve established since the bygone years of former Lagos governor Lateef Jakande. He found the place ideal after a visit and did the necessary paperwork to secure an approval on January 12, 2010, leading to a private-public partnership arrangement between him and the Lagos State Government. The process culminated in the opening of Q-Brat Zoo and Garden on December 12, 2012.
A few schools that came around spread the word. Since then, schools––from the Badagry axis, from far away Lagos metropolis and from nearby Ogun State––have been finding their way to the zoological garden.
The zoo has been groomed into a nature reserve, mostly by preserving its vegetation in its natural state, verdant and luxuriant, as to create a Garden of Eden. It is one of the best parts of the zoo, the Garden of Eden. As you moved through the dense forest you feel the drop in temperature. The air becomes cooler. To your left, to your right, footpaths branch off the main artery, with signpost bearing animals’ names. Tiger Road. Zebra Road. Lion Road. Monkey Road. Wooden seats under the shade invite you to a brief stop as the footpath carves its way through the dense vegetation. In the end, you arrive at a massive, cool, welcoming open space called Aso Rock. When children come visiting, this is their village square. Mats are laid on the ground and they sit to listen to a master storyteller spin yarns of African folklore. Thereafter, drums are brought out and they sing and dance. Children who were impressed returned another day with their parents.
The management of the zoo also practised the art of taxidermy which makes it possible to have embalmed dead animals on display. Similarly, sculptures of animals are all over the park, affording timid kids the opportunity to take photos posing with the non-living versions of the animals.
In the absence of tangible support from the government, Raji has been making effort to ensure the development of the zoo.
One of the efforts is the building of the Q-brat Zoo Guest House. The eight-room facility is often at full occupancy at weekends, during festive periods or when events are staged at the garden.
Running a zoological garden has its headaches. Raji singled out the big problem: a shortage of veterinarians.
“Most of the universities teaching zoology have no zoological gardens. So, their products do not have adequate knowledge of how to handle other animals beyond cattle, dogs and chickens,” he said.
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“The University of Ife and the University of Ibadan have the facilities, but if you are going to bring in those doctors, you pay a fortune for their transport, hotel, service and the drugs. The type of income we generate here is hardly enough to undertake such venture.”
Pointing at a love-lorn couple, he said: “These are the first visitors of the today. There are days we don’t have a single visitor.”
Animal acquisition is the other problem area.
“We get most of our animals from hunters or people who raise wild animals,” he said, “often at steep prices. For example someone called me that he has a crocodile to sell. At about four feet long, I should be thinking of N200, 000 now.”
The cost of feeding carnivores can be gargantuan. “We feed the pythons once in 10 days. The meal of one python is 10 or 12 chickens.”
He had written to many companies, suggesting to them the notion of sponsoring a section of the zoo or animals that are their symbols such as camel, elephant and peacock, but the idea, did not strike a chord with the corporates.
“Not long ago I went to someone who keeps a large number of animals in his house. We are in talks with him to donate to us or will them to us in future.”
There is the mortality of the animals to worry about too. “This year, we have lost well over six million naira worth of animals,” he informed.
The loss included ostriches, jackal, horse, donkey and monkey.
“The mortality is due to the difficulty in acclimatizing to this environment which is a far cry from their natural habitat of semi-arid or arid region.”
All around the park, there are signs of progress: an aviary under construction, hyenas enclosure on the final stage of construction, an empty ostrich garden soon to be replenished, to mention but few.
Overall, Q-brat represents good recreation, a good education for kids raised in the city, who hardly see real animals. At a giveaway gate fee of N500 per person, it is a treat no kids should be denied.
As the year wraps up, and the festive period of the Yuletide draws near, the management of the zoo will have its hand full as it enters its period of peak patronage.
The zoo has in the past six years adroitly packaged school tours and Christmas packages.
Raji had said, “Nigeria needs this kind of recreation. We need that attachment back to nature.”
I agree with him.
If you want to get away from the toxicity of the city––oh yeah, Lagos can be maddening––Q-brat Zoo is a safe sanctuary.