ABIDJAN (AFP) - From monkeys to big cats, people in the Ivory Coast like to keep wild animals as pets, but are now rethinking the custom with the deadly Ebola virus sweeping neighbouring countries.
A visit to the zoo in the economic capital Abidjan quickly demonstrated the concerns. The institution has begun to take in animals abandoned by owners, aware that wild beasts can be vectors of the highly contagious haemorrhagic fever.
The green cages in one section of the zoo have filled up with abandoned or donated animals, but nobody is allowed to visit them since the area is a quarantine zone.
Behind the bars of one cage, monkeys chattered, grunted and gesticulated with excitement. A sign makes it clear that none carry the virus, but they have nonetheless been isolated to prevent possible contamination.
Julie, a two-year-old chimpanzee, showed off and scampered around, asking to be petted. Charlotte, a red baboon, leapt frantically around the cage. Louise, a medium-sized monkey with a white belly and nose, sat stoically on a bar amid the racket. The two males sharing the cage were new and had yet to be named.
The youngest arrival, a small red monkey about 30cm tall, came to the zoo at the beginning of September in circumstances that highlight the fear of Ebola.
The disease has killed almost 1,800 people across closed borders in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea alone and a total 2,600 in the four countries where the disease has hit, including Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
The zoo's vet Daouda Soro said that he had been summoned in haste to Abidjan's military hospital to deal with "an animal who was spreading panic". When he got there, he found a "very small (monkey) who was sleepy but shivering with hunger".
"It was above all Ebola that caused the panic," Dr Soro told AFP.
As for Charlotte, she was abandoned on the street by her owner. Informed of her endangered state by passers-by, Dr Soro sped to the scene to find the baboon surrounded by people armed with "stones and clubs (who) wanted to kill her", he said.
Three weeks later, the three-year-old female was clearly doing much better. Whenever her caretaker Charles Aby Yapi turned his back, Charlotte confidently set about normal primate behaviour trying to pick fleas and ticks off him.
The newcomers "are not aggressive", Mr Yapi said with a smile. The only employee authorised to look after quarantined animals, he wears gloves in the cages and systematically washes his boots in disinfectant.
Even if they are not carrying the Ebola virus, the beasts taken in by the zoo could be infected with a range of diseases, and at risk of contaminating other animals.
"As soon as we can, we'll put the (isolated arrivals) in the zoo" with their own kind, said deputy director Richard Champion, who specified that "the length of quarantine depends on the species".
Strident howls suddenly erupted during the visit. Julie was calling for help. The chilly chimpanzee took fright when Mr Yapi vanished out of sight after putting her in a more comfortable cage so that she could spend the night in a blanket.
Julie's owner sadly relinquished his pet monkey to the zoo under pressure from his neighbours, who began to hassle him constantly on account of the Ebola scare.
"We have already had to turn down about 10 animals" for lack of space in the quarantine zone and in compliance with strict regulations, Dr Soro said.
Instead, advice is being made available to pet owners so that they can go on looking after their monkeys until there is more room in quarantine and places become free.
However, the situation could rapidly worsen if a case of Ebola is diagnosed in Ivory Coast. "That would certainly create panic. So people will abandon their animals," zoo director Samouka Kane said.
The number of beasts people might then want to drop off at the zoo would grow exponentially because domesticating wild animals for company is a widely established practice.
Most animals in the zoo, apart from the elephant but including the leopard, have already been donated by people who no longer wanted to keep such pets at home once they were full-grown, Mr Champion said.
Visitors benefit from the range of wildlife, but ever fewer people have been coming to the zoo since there is widespread but mistaken concern that any wild beast might be a carrier of Ebola.
Researchers worldwide have postulated that the fruit bat is a primary vector that may have passed on the disease to forest antelopes and primates, popularly eaten in many African countries as "bush meat", but there are no certainties.
Mr Kane recalled how one woman who entered the zoo "on tiptoe" panicked and told him how she was "looking everywhere" to try to spot the virus.
"I told her that Ebola doesn't hide in the bushes," he said with a laugh. "Nor in the eyes of an animal."