During a lesson on habitats, eight-year-old Zeenath Reza Khan’s teacher asked her where she lived. Pat came the little girl’s reply: ‘In the zoo.’

The zoo’s first five human residents – Nesar, Razib, Nurun, Zeenath and Reza.
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

The exasperated teacher, Zeenath remembers, reprimanded her for lying and summoned her father to the school, only to have her father, zoologist and wildlife expert Dr Reza Khan, laugh in the teacher’s face and explain that they did in fact live in a villa bang in the centre of the (then) very functional Dubai Zoo.

When the Dubai zoo’s founder, Austrian engineer Otto J. Bulart, built it in 1967, he built the house within the zoo for convenience and speedy communication at a time when phones weren’t common.

‘The teacher’s face was worth seeing!’ the now 39-year-old Zeenath, a professor of engineering at Wollongong University, Dubai, laughs. ‘She did apologise to me later saying it was unheard of [people living in zoos].’

Zeenath’s teacher was on the mark about that: The Khans, originally from Bangladesh, are one of the very few families of Homo sapiens whose home is actually the proverbial menagerie. Only two other well-documented cases exist, both in Britain – the Mottershead family who own Chester Zoo and the Mee family, who bought the Dartmoor Zoological Park. The latter’s implausible story inspired the Matt Damon Hollywood flick We Bought A Zoo.

No film offers have come calling at the Khans’ Jumeirah 1 residence, but Zeenath has collated three-decades’ worth of anecdotes and a lifetime worth of memories into a children’s book about three siblings who live in a zoo and can communicate with the animals – very Dr Dolittle-esque.

Samara’s first birthday in the zoo in 2008.
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The book is Zeenath’s homage to the extraordinary childhood she had and to the zoo that bore witness to many milestones in her life, from her wedding to the celebration of her daughter Samara’s first birthday. It is the house that she and her family are gearing up to bid adieu to after Dubai Zoo officially closed its doors on November 5, paving way for the bigger, better and bolder Dubai Safari due to open next month.

Tears flowed freely and unabashedly during the ceremony that saw the gates to Khans’ beloved home padlocked for good to the public. ‘We all came rushing from work at 5.30pm that day and oh gosh! We were crying. My mum is very funny and handled the emotional situation, reminding us, ‘don’t worry, it’s still open for us. Just use the backdoor.’

It is this entrance that we come through the day we meet the Khan family at their six-bedroom villa. The expansive white building whose veranda is a joyful chaos of children’s toys, footwear and a plastic slide could be any Dubai home except that the grounds have an unmistakable odour of hay and livestock, and when the excited hollering of five kids (all under the age of 10) dies down I can hear the animated chatter of chimpanzees and fluttering and squawking from the flamingo pen – the enclosure closest to the house.

Aiza Castillo-Domingo

‘Most animals except these have been moved to the Dubai Zoo, that’s why you’ll notice it’s quieter,’ Zeenath says pointing to a thin wall that separates the house from the zoo. A bright green door opens up into a whole different world on the other side.

‘The lions are still here and they roar occasionally but they’re probably napping since it is afternoon now’, Zeenath says nonchalantly.

Talk about living a wild life.

Her childhood, Zeenath tells me, was way wilder: ‘A part of the house that we’re sitting in used to be dad’s office before the zoo had proper offices constructed’, she reminisces, ‘and sometimes recuperating animals or new-born cubs would be kept there so dad could watch them closely.

Dr. Khan chips in: ‘When the chimps and gorilla came they had a swing here on the veranda. We’d put them in the children’s pram and walk them around, they’d roam in the garden.’

The children caring for baby tortoises
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Anecdotes fall ripe like lemons from the tree in the Khans’ garden, and the stories are as sweet and zesty as the home-made lemonade I sip on while chatting to three generations who have all lived inside the zoo since 1989, when Zeenath’s father took charge as the zoo’s director: Zeenath, her parents Reza and Nurun (both zoologists), her older brother Nesar and his wife Farhana, and younger sister-in-law Veena – every single member of the family, including Dr Khan’s five grandkids and younger son Razib, who couldn’t make it to the interview, love animals.

Nesar, 43, a managing director at a real-estate firm, remembers being the oddball at his university in Texas for having his dorm’s walls papered with posters of animal. ‘Can you imagine a 19-year-old’s room with a picture of a whale dancing around in the abyss of the sea? It was highly weird but it was a very relaxing picture for me. Now that I think about it, it should have been a band, or a sports star or a supermodel,’ he laughs.

‘My brothers’ and my main chores in the zoo was hand-rearing any cubs or baby animals that were confiscated or abandoned by their parents,’ Zeenath says.

Nursing an abandoned baby chimp.
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While other teenagers were devising ways to sneak into concerts, 15-year-old Zeenath hand-reared a leopard cub and ‘didn’t feel icky even once’ when she was encouraging it to excrete: ‘It was rejected by its mother and with feline cubs the mother licks them to stimulate their excretory system. Since I was hand-rearing, I had to create that motion with a tissue. Every two hours I’d wake up, feed the cub, ensure it was being fed at the correct angle.’

‘My fondest memories here, of growing up in this environment was being able to just go to the zoo anytime. That in itself is such a charm for [us as] children.

‘Anytime’, here includes walks along the zoos pathways in the middle of the night to ease separation anxiety when Nesar moved to university, to storming off to vent teenage angst after an argument with her parents.

‘I have a fear of the dark, but the pitch black of the zoo once the lights would be turned off never bothered me. And on a full-moon night it was magical walking amidst the sleeping animals, their soft chuffing noises instantly soothing me. Maybe an oryx would look up or one of the lions would stalk up to the cage to get a closer look at the intruder but soon they got used to my nocturnal visits.

‘At night you could sense the animals were relaxed after the stress they endure during the day because of a constant stream of visitors; strangers stress them out. That peace was absolutely amazing.’

The walks around the zoo weren’t always lonely. ‘There was a black bear the zoo received from a visiting circus who didn’t want to take her back. She was such an amazing bear; she danced with rhythm, and she’d go for a walk with the keepers and us. We didn’t have dogs, we had bears!’

Almost all of the animals, like the black bear, that came to make the Dubai Zoo their home were confiscated from smugglers at the ports and airports or were abandoned at the zoo’s doorsteps by owners who realised the folly of raising wild animals as pets a little too late. The only animals bought by the zoo were caracals (wild cats) from Saudi Arabia.

Interacting up close and personal with animals rescued from poachers sensitised the Khan siblings to cruelty against animals, the importance of conservation and how human beings were the most ruthless predators, the ones who caused harm for fun.

‘Living with animals made us really humble and it really taught us to empathise. People always talk about protecting animals but when you’re as close as we were and see the actual impact [that humans have on animals] it really hits you. We’ve seen visitors throw cigarette butts into cages; we lost a chimpanzee to tuberculosis. People would feed the giraffe all kinds of rubbish because its enclosure wasn’t high enough and pedestrians on the street could reach her – we lost a giraffe to a stone in the stomach. When they did an autopsy the 7.5kg stone was made up of plastic and ropes and all kinds of rubbish.

‘We are crazy animal lovers who visit the zoo in every city we travel too. I even forced my husband to visit a zoo on our honeymoon. But I never go to zoos that allow their animals to be petted because I know how stressful it is for that animal unless that visitor is part and parcel of their life like we were.’

Mum Nurun narrates the time Razib, her youngest son, sat in the zoo’s veterinary clinic crying for and singing to each of 12 cheetah cubs that died as a result of being separated from their mother by poachers. Zeenath’s voice, earlier bubbling with excitement reliving her childhood memories, pipes down at the dark recollection finding the safari’s current chimp Julie and gorilla Digit stuffed in a tiny box as babies. ‘The poachers didn’t even know they were two different species, that’s how much they didn’t care.’

The children worked as guides.
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There was no better destination than a zoo to learn about the circle of life and survival of the fittest – if death preyed on sick and the weak animals like Zeenath’s rejected leopard cub, the Khan siblings also witnessed the miracle of birth when the zoo’s first baby giraffe, Laila, was born in 2000. ‘That night was so precious for us because that was the first time it animal was giving birth in the zoo. We stayed up the whole night, then finally the calf came and we saw it – a tiny miniature giraffe.’ Time hasn’t faded the wonder in Zeenath’s voice as she narrates the memory seventeen years later.

Nesar, Zeenath and Razib had front-row seats to the introduction of wild animals to the world: ‘when the Syrian bears first arrived at night we could hear them growl and move inside the containers; we watched these magnificent animals being coaxed out with wonder, not fear.’

Growing up in the zoo meant Zeenath and her brothers were never scared of animals, not even when they escaped from their cages.

Nesar laughs at the memory of a loose crocodile that pulled a Shawshank Redemption. ‘My room faces the boundary wall that separates the zoo from the house and someone was thumping on the tiny door. It was an escaped crocodile that was banging on the door with its tail!

‘It had been digging for I don’t how many years, but he managed to dig a hole through his cage and come outside.’

‘These weren’t hilarious stories we read in the paper, this was our life’ Zeenath adds.

Then there was the time 12 python hatchlings escaped and couldn’t be found. ‘My husband asked me to not allow the kids to go outside without boots. They weren’t poisonous but it was another tension,’ laughs Nurun.

To protect the kids from diseases and infection Nurun would daily clean the floors with antiseptic, and every week the horticulture department would come and spray the grounds with insecticide. ‘They enjoyed a lot with the animals but I’ve had to go to a lot of pains to keep [these kids] safe in this zoo. But I’ve loved every minute of living here and loved having animals around,’ the matriarch says, smiling as she tells me about the time she hosted primatologist Jane Goodall.

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What made living in Dubai Zoo such a hands-on experience for the entire family was the fact that it was a tiny holding. Spanning just 5 acres, it’s perhaps one of the smallest zoos in the world and back in 1989, when Dr Khan moved his family from Al Ain zoo and took charge as Dubai Zoo’s head, there were no paved walkways or even a functional drainage system and definitely no trained keepers (they were mostly labourers). ‘We only had a yearly maintenance budget of Dh60,000 but we’d spend over a million dirhams each year on the animals’ food,’ Dr Khan says.

That meant for a few years, the kids doubled up as guides after they came from school.

‘Whenever visitors would drop in we’d talk to them and explain which one is a migratory bird and what is a mammal and they’d look at us funny like, ‘who are these kids and why do they know so much?’ Zeenath says as she and the family take me on a tour of the zoo.

They’re still a treasury of odd nuggets of information about the animal kingdom: ‘Cheetahs have a lot of in-breeding and only the mother’s milk has antibodies to immunise them.’ Zeenath tells me.

‘And never let a chimpanzee have Red Bull,’ Nesar laughs as he plays with Julie the chimp through the cage, talking about the time she snatched an energy drink from his friend’s hand and went ape due to the sugar high.

Why then didn’t the siblings follow their parents’ footsteps and pursue professions in animal sciences? ‘I don’t think it was my choice to go and study engineering. I was conditioned to think that I have to become an engineer,’ Nesar says, Zeenath agrees. The siblings’ kids, however, have the freedom to be whatever they want to and Nesar’s 9-year-old son Ayhaam has graduated from knowing all the scientific names of the zoo animals from memory to setting his sights on palaeontology.

‘We spent so much time in the zoo, we could always differentiate between animals based on their personalities,’ Zeenath says. ‘We’d build a connection with one or two and when they’d see us next to the cage they’d make funny these facial expressions just for us.’

Raja the Siberian tiger got the lion’s share of Zeenath’s affection.

‘He would pee on anyone he disliked and the giveaway was he’d lift his tail and turn around,’ she laughs walking by the empty tiger cage. ‘He did that once to an aunt we didn’t like.’

Forging close bonds with animals also meant having them broken abruptly: ‘My parents always made it very clear that there was a line we didn’t cross – that we could never have the animals as pets. Once they grew up, they had to go back to the cages and wouldn’t stay here, says Zeenath.

The pain of having his cheetah cub taken away back to the zoo ‘shattered’ Nezam and distanced him from the animal world. ‘I took care of it day and night and it grew to be an adult and next to me that cheetah was like domesticated cat and a guard dog when outsiders came. That’s how much we loved each other.’

Except for naming Digit, the gorilla, after primatologist Dian Fossey’s gorilla – ‘we’d just seen the film Gorillas in the Mist’ – the kids never named any animals to avoid attachment.

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But how do they let go of an entire way of life they’ve been attached to for 28 years? Nesar’s wife Farhana remembers being petrified of the lions roaring when she first moved to this house as a new bride. ‘After 12 years, I don’t think I can sleep without that noise. I will miss it.’

Veena Mulani would tease her husband Razib in school about living in a zoo with taunting questions of which monkey cage he lived in. ‘I had visited the zoo many times as a kid but seeing it through the eyes of someone who lived here was so different. That’s what I fell for,’ she laughs.

Every cage, every tree, every corner of the zoo and the house are filled with memories for the Khan family. ‘We lived inside a zoo in Al Ain too, but what makes the Dubai zoo special is that the zoo grew up with us,’ Zeenath says.

Both the house and zoo have come a long way from Nesar’s first memory of it when he came to look at the place with his father – ‘it was filthy, like a haunted house and wild Barbary sheep were running around!’

The zoo that started off with a handful of animals – a tiger, lion, one giraffe, two chimpanzees, a few deer, birds, some snakes, lizards and a few tortoises – had 1,800 animals at its peak. Julie the chimpanzee and Digit the gorilla are full-grown adults you will be able to see in Dubai Safari. The Dubai Zoo’s expansion plans, shelved three times since Dr Khan first made the proposal in 1991, have finally happened.

The circle of life has come around and it’s time for the zoo kids to say goodbye to their home.

Zeenath says: ‘I’ve been really emotionally down. Dubai Zoo has been such a big part of who I am. While my brothers moved away to study, this has always been my parents’ home.’

Nesar with his cheetah cub.
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But Nesar finds the silver lining: ‘Any kind of sadness or depression will be overcome by the joy of these animals going to a better place. That’s the bigger picture. We’ve had an incredible childhood, like that book My Family and Other Animals, and we’ll never get this anywhere ever again.’