KABUL, Afghanistan - Al fresco diners at a popular restaurant in the Afghan capital would be surprised to find out what lurks behind its high perimeter wall: a pet lion is on the loose in the backyard.
The fact that “Sherro” lives next door can be seen as a metaphor for life in Kabul – 12 years after the Taliban was toppled and on the eve of large-scale withdrawal of foreign combat troops, surprising and often dangerous things unknowingly lie just feet away.
The animal’s owner Mohammad Shafiq says there is nothing wrong with having a lion as a pet in the middle of Kabul, and insists his animal is a “friendly” cat.
“When I bought him, he was a four-month-old baby. But now he is growing bigger and stronger by the day,” said the 43-year-old construction company owner, his eyes widening. “We hired guards to look after him 24 hours a day. He has good food, water and a veterinarian comes to give him a weekly checkup. We give him everything he needs.”
The eight-month-old cub is originally from India but was purchased on the black market in Kandahar. Sherro initially made his home on Shafiq’s rooftop terrace. Soon Shafiq decided to move the growing lion “away from the kids” to a large backyard garden at a friend’s office, where Sherro has freedom to roam. He sleeps most of the day in a cool shed and spends his nights wandering through the yard.
Beyond the walls, snarled traffic fills Kabul’s streets. Armed guards and soldiers protect the influential, and insurgents keep up attacks. The number of Afghan civilians killed or injured in the first half of 2013 rose by 23 percent compared to the same period in 2012, according to the United Nations.
The lion, meanwhile, has a “great life” and enjoys “good relations with the humans,” according to Najeeb Omid, a friend who cares for the animal.
There is nothing wrong with keeping a lion in the heart of a major city, Omid and Shafiq insist.
“He does not want to attack anybody, he’s just shouting, not attacking,” Omid said in reference to Sherro’s signature growl.
The two men vehemently challenge their critics and say Sherro is well cared for and does not pose a danger to the public.
“We have done our best to keep him from hurting anyone or from escaping,” Shafiq said. They are open to receiving “advice” from professional animal keepers that know how to best care for lions in captivity, Omid added.
Government authorities have pressured the men to give up Sherro, but Shafiq says they don’t believe that would be in its best interest.
“The police advised us that we should hand over the lion to the Kabul Zoo, but I want to keep it,” he said. “If in the future I can no longer afford to take good care of it, then I will give it to the zoo as a gift.”
First published August 29 2013, 1:34 AM