“Come babe, come to grandpa. Don’t be afraid,” Behcet Ali coos as he handfeeds two eight-month-old lion cubs at his tiny zoo in the sleepy northeastern Bulgarian town of Razgrad.
At 82, Bai (Granddad) Behcet, as he is known locally, is Bulgaria’s oldest zookeeper, famous for raising over 15 lion cubs during his 33 years of work and the only one to be in full contact with the predators.
Bai Behcet’s unwavering devotion to saving the little 52-year-old zoo, spread over only 2,000 square metres (about 21,000 square feet), earned him the title of honorary citizen of Razgrad in 2007.
His prime concern now are the two cubs — one male and the other female — of six-year-old lioness Raya, who already weigh over 50 kilos (110 pounds).
“I haven’t named them yet. I call them ‘babies’ and they understand,” the zookeeper says, patting them on their backs and rubbing them behind the ears under the attentive look of their mother in the adjoining enclosure.
“To become friends with animals, as with people, you need to have a knack, to show them that you love them.”
“And if people sometimes do not respond in kind when you do them good, an animal always understands and returns kindness,” Bai Behcet explains.
The cubs love an iron ball he brought for them to play, tackling it with their oversized paws.
But it is quickly forgotten when he lets Raya back into the enclosure and the cubs rub against her sides, purring.
The father killed Raya’s first litter but she is a very caring mother, Bai Behcet says.
“She is jealous that I love them so much but sees that I do not harm them and would not hurt me,” he says, while ordering to the trio to stand still for a photo shoot.
Bai Behcet, who used to work at the local veterinary clinic before coming to the zoo in 1979, has been clawed by lions as well as bears, which he also used to raise here, but says he has never feared his charges.
And he won’t even think of retiring despite several entreaties by his family.
“It never crossed my mind to give up as that would be the end of it.”
“The animals give me joy, I am happy that I can bring them up, raise them. What more can you want?”
Besides the three lions, Bai Behcet tends to over a dozen other animals all by himself, including lamas, goats, mouflons or a subspecies group of wild sheep, a pony, pigeons, pheasants, racoons and guinea pigs.
But lack of space — which the environment ministry has found a serious problem in all 11 zoos in Bulgaria — forced the zookeeper to send his bear away to another establishment.
Municipality funds in this small town, about 350 kilometres (217 miles) from the capital Sofia and dominated by ethnic Turks, are also scarce and the zoo does not make visitors pay for admission either.
Still, Bai Behcet’s fridge is full of meat and three small mountains of stale bread can be seen piled up in a shed — all donations from local companies.
“All this I get myself by going around town, asking, convincing… without having to pay out money.”
“Everyone wonders how I manage… But there’s a saying that if you do it yourself, it will be done better,” he says.
Through the years he tried to recruit several workers as well as his son-in-law but Bai Behcet says learning such an uncommon trade has proven difficult.
His 24-year-old grandson helps when he needs to be away on errands.
“People are used to having working hours. I don’t. And my wife knows that when I am here I decide when I’ll be going home. She is cross but that’s the way I am — uncontrollable,” he says impishly, winking behind his thick spectacles.
Skinny but energetic, he carries around buckets of chicken feet to feed the lions and still rides the short distance home every day on his motorbike, despite an accident that left him limping.
“He’s legendary for never giving up. This is the old generation but few people like him are left nowadays,” Mihail Baltadzhiev, who oversees the town’s animal facilities, including the zoo, told AFP.
“Everyone here knows and respects Bai Behcet,” 54-year-old Sultana Mehmet added as her grandsons Iray, 6, and Berg, 7, roared at the animals through the fence.
“How else would the kids be able to see a lion?”