A well-intended zoo in Gaza became a nightmarish prison after repeated Israeli bombings in the region deteriorated its resources.
Local Mohammed Awaida opened up Khan Younis Zoo in 2007, along with a children’s park across the street, in hopes that he could brighten the spirits of Palestinians during difficult times. Awaida invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into the zoo, smuggling in wild animals through the tunnels that are usually used to bring food, weapons, fuel and medicine.
Khan Younis Zoo was home to a crocodile, ostriches, snakes, monkeys, turtles, deer, a llama, a lion and two tigers. Two baby elephants died in the causeway from Gaza to Egypt, but otherwise the remaining animals originally survived.
Unfortunately, in 2014, Israel launched a massive attack against Hamas in response to increased hostilities. The bombs not only killed thousands of civilians, but food and medicine became scarce.
Dr. Amir Khalil, director of Four Paws Animal Welfare Clinic, moved in last week and shut down the zoo, relocating the remaining animals to rehabilitation facilities and wildlife conservatories in safer areas.
“It was after the 2014 fighting that the Khan Younis Zoo came on our radar,” Khalil said. “It was clear that this was a failing place. Food, medicine, basic care for the animals – everything was in short supply and they were paying for it with their lives.”
“After 2014, the health of these animals was deteriorating rapidly. Four Paws took the decision to rescue them. It has been an incredibly difficult, complex and delicate operation, not least because of the situation Gaza finds itself.”
13 animals were rescued – though the zoo once held 65, long since dead – and transported to Jordan. The remaining tiger, Laziz, will be taken to South Africa to a massive enclosure at the Lion’s Rock Big Cat Sanctuary.
Sadly, many of the other animals’ bones were left in their cages unattended – and some of them were even purposefully mummified.
Dr. Khali stated that “at least we are happy now to know that those who made it through will have a better life.”
“The idea to mummify animals started after the Gaza war because a number of animals like the lion, the tiger, monkeys and crocodiles died” Awaida stated, “So we asked around and we learned from the Web how to start.”
“We paid no money to the owner to rescue them. He could no longer cope. In the end, he asked us to take the animals, but talks were seldom easy. We were in talks right up until we arrived in Gaza. The owner is going to concentrate his resources now on the children’s playground across the street,” he added.
This failing zoo in Gaza is a grim display of how war has torn apart the Palestinian land. In fact, Israeli soldiers have a terrible history with zoos in Gaza. In 2009, Israeli soldiers came and destroyed The Gaza Zoo, owned by Emad Jameel Qasim.
Qasim said just a month before the attack, the zoo was attracting about 1,000 visitors a day. The soldiers fired missiles into animal cages, killing the majority of them. He says the first thing they did was shoot at the lions, “but the animals ran out of their cage and into the office building. Actually, they hid there.”
Hundreds of animals were shot and killed. When asked why it was important to Qasim to have a zoo in Gaza, he replied:
“During the past four years it was the most popular place for kids. They came from all over the Gaza Strip. There was nowhere else for people to go”.
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