JEDDAH — It is no place for the faint-hearted. But come every Friday, lovers of the animal kingdom congregate in this spot to view and buy rare and common creatures from the Kingdom.
At the Animal and Bird Souk in south Jeddah, where domesticated animals are marketed throughout the week, a unique corner is set off for the bold who crave the beautiful and dangerous.
Wild animals, venomous snakes, exotic birds can be had as pets, albeit at a price. Purchases are made either through one-on-one bargains or through streamlined auctions that spring up at this impromptu market.
This extension of the souk is only available every Friday after Asr prayer.
All deals are stuck between Asr and Maghreb prayers as the sellers and buyers pack up soon after Maghreb, when the light fades into night.
The location is a street that is divided into various sections that house the different members of the animal kingdom.
The souk is managed by the Umdah (chief) of the market, who intercedes in all disputes or disagreements between buyers and buyers, buyers and sellers and even sellers and sellers.
He sees to it that the laws are followed and there are no illegal activities in the market.
He is also in touch with the municipal authorities and the local police to keep the area incident-free.
Saudis and non-Saudis — Africans, Asians and Europeans — frequent the market — both as sellers or buyers. There are regulars who have made it their business and there are those who seek one-off sales.
If you have an animal for sale then this is the place where you can sell it. The sale can be handled personally or an auctioneer could be hired for a fee.
A person can find a buyer for a one-on-one sale, but if one seeks to hold an auction then the person cannot hold one himself.
There are exclusive areas where auctions are held and the auctioneers are registered. It is they who hold the auctions, and they have to be paid a certain percentage of the proceeds.
One of the frequented spots is the snake area, where there are more gawkers than buyers. But both are satisfied by the varieties on offer.
Non-venomous snakes are in demand, as people generally want to impress friends and family by holding them or playing with them or using them to scare others.
A seller revealed that most buyers of such snakes do not know anything about caring for them, even how and what to feed them.
“We ask them questions and by their bemused looks we know their capabilities.
“At the end of the day we need to sell, so we give them tips on how to keep them as pets and hope for the best.
“Many of these reptiles do not live long as they are not properly cared for, and are thrown away by the owners once they die.”
A vendor of poisonous snakes said, “We do not sell to anyone our snakes. We need to know whether he can handle the particular snake. At the end of the day we don’t want anybody dying on us.”
On the day Saudi Gazette visited the souk, there were snake handlers with various types on offer. But the big constrictors were the draw, and even a cobra was on sale that day.
“Small pythons and non-venomous snakes fetch about SR150 to SR200 and above. But money can be made from big ones — SR700 to SR3,000 and above — depending on the age, venom and species,” another seller said.
Some of the sellers have a ready-made place for the animals, which they add to the sale. But the snakes, the small ones especially, are generally put in a plastic box, while the birds, lizards, rabbits and monkeys are generally sold with a cage.
The dogs, different breeds, are the ones with registration and veterinarian certificates and they come at a huge price. One German Shepherd was being sold for SR7,000.
A monkey, dressed up in a sleeveless vest, too was commanding a price. But on the given day there were no takers and the seller had to take home the primate and wait for another Friday. Turtles too are on display and they make a quick buck for the seller.
The extension of the animal souk is legal, with the sellers generally having permits for their sale. But as is in the real world, there are people who cross the legal line to make a fast buck.
All it needs for a buyer to surreptitiously make it known in the market grapevine that he is seeking banned animals, and then there is someone ready to fulfill his wish.
The sale of cheetahs, as Saudi Gazette learned, is unique here. The price is first agreed upon, the money changes hands and then the spotted feline beauty is given to the buyer.
The sellers generally do not reveal this sale, as it is illegal, as is the importing of exotic birds. The Kingdom had imposed the ban two years back following the rise in bird flu cases globally.
But there is no dearth of exotic birds on sale. Some of the bird lovers are inbreeding or cross breeding to produce unique species, and they then sell them.
The major sale in this souk, however, is the Baladi chickens, pigeons and parrots. The variety of pigeons and parrots in the souk is unimaginable. The rare ones with puffed feather, colored plumes and different sizes fetch high prices.
The Baladi chickens are also sold in big numbers because many Saudis still prefer to eat the Baladi chicken to the frozen one, or take their eggs that are hormone free.
Some sellers said for them it is a business, as they have been trapping and selling these animals from childhood. For others, it is a hobby as they like the feel of the place and to be with rare creatures.
But what really bring the sellers back are the profits. “I made about SR3,000 in profits today,” said a seller who did not wish to be named. “There are others who make more.”
Most sellers, however, end up with profits of over SR500, but those with one-off sales generally go home with smaller margins.
But the lure of something different over that brief period is what makes these aficionados — buyer or seller — a regular on Fridays, where anything or everything goes.
“If there is a demand for an elephant, then we’ll even try to get it,” a seller jokingly said as the caravan of man and animal set out from the market while the sun set on another Friday.