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Wild Kingdom

High up in the hills of Aley lives a bear, two hyenas, a warthog, coyotes, and a horse—along with other furry and feathered friends. Animal Encounter, founded by two AUB grads, is an animal preserve with an educational mission—to promote conservation and an understanding of endangered and indigenous animals. MainGate Co-Editor Lynn Mahoney finds that at Animal Kingdom all creatures great and small happily coexist.

Iam face to face with a giant bear in Lebanon. Not something I ever expected to happen. How I got here at all began with an e-mail from MainGate Production Manager Randa Zaiter suggesting that we really ought to do a story on Animal Encounter, an animal preserve and educational center in Aley run by her friends, AUB alumni Mounir and Diana Abi-Said.
Intrigued and as a long-time animal lover, I decided, why not, and found myself one sunny afternoon driving up the steep hill to Aley with Randa. As we reached the top of the rugged mountain with its breathtaking views, we began to see, then hear and smell the inhabitants of Animal Encounter. From the bleating goats and clucking chickens in the petting zoo (a favorite of children) to the entranceway landscaped with fresh, richly scented lavender, I sensed I was in for an experience like no other.
Animal Encounter, founded in 1993, initially came into existence for practical reasons. The Abi-Saids had finally run out of space in their backyard for all the maimed and abandoned animals they had been taking in and caring for. “Plus, all the animals were driving our neighbors crazy,” explained Diana laughing. The simple act of looking around for more space quickly led to the realization of their cherished dream—to establish an animal conservation area in Lebanon designed to promote animal awareness, especially among children.
Upon finding an ideal but undeveloped spot in Aley, Mounir and Diana rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They spent many hours of many days digging dirt and laying stone to create the protective, comfortable home for animals they envisioned and also make of it a unique educational environment for human visitors. The Municipality of Aley, along with the Canadian Embassy, Green Line Association, and the Bank of Kuwait and the Arab World, provided funding, but much of Animal Encounter has been a true labor of love. Amazingly, the Abi-Saids finished Animal Kingdom in just two months—a testimony to the young couple’s passionate dedication to their project.
Both AUBites, Diana received her BS in Agriculture in 1988 and her master’s in Crop Production in 1991. Mounir received his BS in Agriculture 1989 and his master’s in Animal Sciences in 1991. They also married in 1991. Over the past nine years, both Mounir and Diana worked at AUB’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences; Mounir is still there as a research assistant. In addition to his demanding schedule at Animal Encounter and at AUB, Mounir is currently busy finishing his PhD in Biodiversity Management at Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology of the University of Kent at Canterbury, which kept him from joining us on the tour. His in-depth research on hyenas is right in line with his work at Animal Encounter. And Diana, who is an expert on plant life, hopes to expand Animal Encounter’s educational program to include awareness of Lebanon’s unusual diversity of flora.
“Injured animals are safe here and really should not be released again into the wild, unless in a safe place and when they are healthy again,” explains Diana, as we walk through Animal Encounter. We pass an imposing buzzard nestled in a tree, but he turns out to be a friendly bird of prey—Diana notes that every time visitors pass he screeches, “Eek, eek,” which he certainly did as we walked by.
“We have a pelican here too,” says Diana. “It’s one of the few in Lebanon. His big pouch can contain 14 liters of water and he can eat four kilos of fish a day.” I stare in awe at being so close to such an amazing bird, as Diana continues, “When we got him, he was injured, but now he is well and has a safe home.”
My favorite is the horse, Helweh. Sweet and gentle, he gingerly eats a carrot out of my hand. “We also have a number of farm animals, because many of the little children visiting actually don’t know what sheep, horses, goats, or even dogs and cats are like; they just see pictures of them in books. Here they can experience them,” says Diana.Next, we come upon the wolves. They are surprisingly serene and
beautiful with their crystal blue eyes, but are quite shy and stay hidden. “Wolves are very important in the wild because of their natural ecological balance with the wild boar,” comments Diana. She tells us they are trying to get the wolves to breed and that Animal Encounter has been quite successful in breeding animals in captivity and having them give birth inside their cages.
The wild boar is visibly excited to see us and makes quite a fuss, bellowing out a loud honking welcome. Boars, Diana explains, are more
plentiful in Lebanon these days, as more of their natural predators, the hyenas and wolves, are being hunted.

The hyenas also make a commotion as we approach—their natural instinct of “protecting” Diana from the two “strangers” standing next to her. They were an arresting sight with their puffed out manes, which Diana points out is a hyena reflex mechanism of defense that makes them appear bigger when threatened by other animals. She nostalgically recalls when the hyenas arrived at Animal Encounter as cubs and how she and Mounir raised them. Hyenas, I learn from her, are a misunderstood species. “People think they are fearful animals,” she says, “but they don’t attack unless they are provoked, and they don’t go out in packs at night, but only alone or in twos. And they scavenge in garbage for food—leftover animal flesh and bones. They especially love the bones, which they actually eat, digest, and ‘recycle’ into organic material.”
Continuing our tour, we next come upon a menagerie of jackals, a baboon, red deer, exotic birds, sheep, goats, chickens, and golden eagles. Then suddenly before us is Teddy, a huge but enchanting bear, sitting and plodding around his pen with an air of satisfied contentment. “We
used to have bears in Lebanon,” says Diana. “But because of hunting and habitat destruction through the years, they became extinct. Teddy was in a circus and the owners didn’t have enough money to take care of him, so we bought him in 1993. He is quite friendly, and in winter when his fur is fully grown, he looks even bigger.”
We end up in Animal Encounter’s educational center, where Diana and Mounir give visitors, many of whom are elementary school children, slide shows about animal wildlife and nature, the environment, and the relationship between animals, people, and the environment. Diana tells us that more than 16,000 children a year visit Animal Encounter and remarks that “promoting awareness among children is our priority… We cannot really reach out to older generations that were not raised with awareness of the environment. Working with this generation, however, produces a more positive response. Also, children can have a huge impact on their parents’ attitude towards animals…We are really trying,” she says with a smile.
Diana believes Animal Encounter is changing people’s attitudes towards wildlife and that this is resulting in more conservation and a decline in hunting. “We have a sign here that asks ‘What is the most dangerous animal?’ and we tell the children that people are. To explain how, we use the example of a lion attacking a herd of deer and point out that the lion would only kill one or two deer to feed its family. A human hunter, however, kills without mercy, only for fun.”
Animal Encounter is still supported by the organizations that funded its establishment, but much of the day-to-day operation, in money and muscle, is covered by the Abi-Saids. They have started asking for a small donation per student from the school groups that visit, which helps with maintenance, landscape upkeep, and water and food for the animals. “We also have an adoption program—Teddy the bear, for example, can be adopted for $75 a year,” Diana explains. “The donor’s name is posted outside the adopted animal’s pen and also receives a certificate and photos.”
Animal Encounter, I discovered, is truly a labor of love and a unique hands-on resource in Lebanon. The Abi-Saids are not only protecting animals that might otherwise be hunted or in risk of injury; they are also sharing their love for the creatures of the wild by educating Lebanon’s young generation about their ecological importance. “The more you get in touch with animals,” Diana says, “The more you realize how important they are to the environment.”