When the unassuming box arrived at the airport, there was little clue as to what was inside. But after the box had remained unopened for seven days, some people finally arrived to prise off its lid. As they peered inside the package, though, their stomachs turned. A sickening secret had been hidden here the entire time.
On March 7, 2017, Beirut airport in Lebanon received a perplexing package: a small wooden crate of unknown origin. The box was 10.6 cubic feet and perforated with some little holes in the side. There was nothing else unusual about it except the absence of detail.
There wasn’t even an address to reveal where the crate was coming from or going to. It’s little surprise, then, that the box remained in customs untouched. And there it might have stayed. However, there was someone elsewhere working to get its mystery contents released.
The crate had come to the attention of an animal-welfare organization called Animals Lebanon (AL). Although it’s not clear how AL obtained the information, the group had been told about the Beirut airport package, and it was trying to get the box open.
“As soon as we were alerted about the shipment… we alerted the Ministry of Agriculture and Customs,” AL revealed on its website in March 2017. Ministry workers went to check on the crate, and what was found worried AL deeply.
As it turned out, the box was carrying live cargo: it was a prison for three Siberian tiger cubs. “Nothing indicated that the box contained tigers or even live animals,” AL reported on Facebook that same month. Nevertheless, the cats had been stuck in the tiny container like luggage.
“They were shoved in a crate that was only 42 centimeters [16.5 inches] high while the animals were about 60 centimeters [23.5 inches] tall,” AL explained. It seemed as if the tigers had been left with no thought for their safety. They had no food or water or anywhere to urinate or defecate, either.
AL had to work fast to rescue the poor creatures, so it contacted a judge, Hasan Hamdan. The group told the judge about the shocking package stuck in customs, and it described how urgent the situation was. It hoped the appeal would be enough to get the crate opened.
The situation was desperate; the tigers had been in their crate for seven days by that point. Fortunately, Judge Hamdan ruled in AL’s favor and granted the group permission to save the animals. With that, they went to Beirut airport to free the cubs.
When AL finally opened the crate, what they found inside was horrifying. There were indeed three Siberian tiger cubs, all crammed together with no room to move. In fact, the box they were stuffed in was so small that they couldn’t even stand upright.
The cubs were only four months old, and they had already been starved and dehydrated while stuck in customs. But perhaps even worse, they’d had no alternative other than to relieve themselves on one another. And this had naturally resulted in terrible health conditions.
Indeed, the entire length of the cubs’ rear legs were raw and tender from exposure to their own waste. The pads on their paws had also been left sore and red. Perhaps the most disturbing things, though, were the other creatures found infesting the crate.
Jason Mier, executive director of AL, described the moment on video. “Once we finally got [the cubs] out of the box, [the box] had dozens and dozens of maggots crawling around in it,” he said. “There were maggots all over the back thighs of the animals and around their anus.”
According to ABC News, the tiger cubs were actually being transferred between zoos when they got caught up in customs. To be more precise, they were sent from a zoo in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. However, the zoo’s director, Volodymyr Topchiy, protested its innocence.
Apparently, the Ukrainian zoo had agreed to send the tigers to a Syrian zoo in exchange for some wildcats. “They passed customs clearance, we have customs declarations,” Topchiy told ABC in April 2017. He said it was bureaucracy that stopped the exchange, but AL had a conflicting argument.
In fact, Mier claimed that there had been no paperwork with the cubs at all. The transport conditions also fell vastly short of legal requirements for endangered species, according to AL. In any event, Judge Hamdan ruled that the tigers were to be seized by AL for their recovery.
“A specialized wildlife vet was flown in to give them all a medical examination,” AL revealed on its Facebook page. “They had not received the proper vaccinations so all three were vaccinated. Only one tiger was found to have a microchip, though documents state that all three should have been microchipped.”
Under the care of AL, the cubs flourished and were given names to go with their new lease of life. They were all named after contributors to the group’s cause: the two sisters were called May and Tania, while their brother was named Antoun.
“May is the most confident female,” Mier told The Dodo in April 2017. “[She’s] the first to eat and explore new enrichment items. Tania follows May to look at new things; she seems like May’s sidekick. [Antoun is] more shy than the others but they all play well with each other.”
“They are improving – but they are still at risk! Big cats can be worth tens of thousands of dollars on the black market,” added Mier. “The owner is fighting to get them back, and we are fighting for the tigers and rule of law.” Whatever happens in the future, the most important thing for now is that the crate was opened in time.