Yemen: The Abandoned Animals of Taiz

Animals in Taiz suffer malnutrition and negligence as a result of the ongoing war in Yemen. Image Nasser Al Sakkaf

Yemen’s animals have few protectors. Some are even in danger of extinction

By Nasser Al Sakkaf

THE citizens of Yemen’s Taiz city have been dealt many blows in recent months. Conflict, hunger, isolation and struggle dominate the city’s streets.
But they are not the only ones affected by the conflict, which escalated in March 2015. Yemen’s animals, too, are the silent victims of airstrikes, sieges and the internecine conflict that continues to rage on, unabated. Most suffer from a lack of food and medical supplies.

Zoo animals, abandoned pets and farm livestock: all face a certain imminent fate if nothing is done to save them.

In the city zoo, located in Al Hawban, north of Taiz City, which is under the control of Houthi rebels, some 280 animals were left to starve to death when employees fled the facility, abandoning its vulnerable residents without food or medicine.

The sight of the caged animals is nothing short of heart-wrenching. Some lions are severely malnourished and have also lost their fur, while others have gaping wounds and are too weak to move. The zoo is now home to 20 lions and 26 rare Arabian leopards.

But there have already been losses; 11 lions, six leopards and a number of small animals have died since March 2015, according to the zoo’s resident veterinarian, Yahya Al Zabidi, who has a thankless task on his hands.

The risk posed to some animals has serious implications for global conservation. Some of the endangered Arabian leopards have begun to eat the corpses of their companions in order to survive, Zabidi says. These aren’t your average leopards; the species has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1996. Fewer than 200 wild Arabian leopards were estimated to be alive in 2006.

After the war’s outbreak, the city’s municipality was no longer able to fund the zoo, which meant that the management was unable to buy the necessary food supplies to feed their wards. “The leopards and lions are the main victims because they need a lot of meat—and the zoo depends on the charity of the people to provide the animals with food,” he says. The zoo, which has now been abandoned by its management, is being looked after by veterinarians and a number of government workers.

The costs are hard to bear, but some are risking all to do what they can. “A lion needs four to five kilograms of meat per day and a leopard needs two to four kilograms per day,” Zabidi tells Newsweek Middle East.

But as the months passed and the war became interminable, food donations dwindled. By January, the animals were receiving less than a quarter of their daily nutritional needs.

Zabidi seems exhausted by the work; he wears old clothes and his face is drawn and pallid. He depends on his original salary of YR25,000 ($116), which is barely enough for him to eke out a living for his family. Before war broke out, Zabidi was once paid double that sum from the zoo’s administrators.

“Some international volunteers started to provide the animals with food and water in the middle of February,” he says, adding that this was “a temporary solution.”  An online campaign by an animal lover in Sweden raised $33,000 in two weeks, according to Reuters. The money was put to use in paying staff, funding surgery on the lions’ open wounds and feeding the big cats.

The donation went to the payment of only some of the staff, but not all. Zabidi did not get anything as he was already on the receiving end of a salary, while those who had worked for free, received part of the donation. The donation hasn’t run out in full yet, but it won’t last in the coming months, and is not a sustainable solution, he says.

Without respite, the zoo’s future looks bleak. The handouts are a salve for a much bigger concern. “We need an organization or the country to come up with a permanent solution to the problem, as there is no income from the zoo.”

Many residents have fled the city for rural areas, and even those who remain are not interested in visiting the zoo, given the extraordinary hardships many are facing. Human Rights Watch has said that the city’s population had dropped from about 600,000 to no more than 200,000 civilians since the start of conflict. Medics in the city say at least 1,600 people have been killed there since the start of the war. At least 6,000 people have been killed across Yemen, according to the United Nations, around half of them civilians.

The situation is even more unbearable because the city no longer receives tourists from other provinces; a traditional—and crucial—source of income for the once-thriving Taiz.

Zabidi says the zoo is unable to secure an income of even YR200 (less than $1) per day. Vegetarian animals require 100 kilos of vegetables daily, and all the animals need a daily intake of 50,000 liters of water, in addition to medical needs.

“Some animals [have] died of hunger, while others, such as the lions, have become very weak. They are in dire need of medical attention or else they will die like the others,” Zabidi says.

The zoo is also home to lynx, hyenas, snakes, crocodiles, baboons, owls, parrots, emus, falcons, buzzards and vultures. The veterinarian suggests that if the local council and the Ministry of Tourism cannot help the animals, they must transfer them to other zoos such as in the capital Sanaa, or the port city of Al Hodeida.

“It is difficult for us to see the animals die in front of our eyes. We cannot help them, so I hope that the Ministry of Tourism moves the animals to another zoo,” he says.

But there is little chance of this; the ministry can offer no help. Tourism in Yemen has been dealt a severe blow, and the ministry is already facing its own financial problems due to lack of income. A ministry source tells Newsweek Middle East, on condition of anonymity, that it does not have the budget to help the zoo.

Anxious to end the interview, and appearing apathetic to the plight of Taiz animals, he adds that other zoos in the country are also depending solely on income from visitors and on volunteers to feed the animals. Government responsibility for them is of no interest to him. “In conflict zones such as Taiz, we cannot help the animals because the war stopped the income of the zoo. The only thing that we can do is appeal to the goodwill of the people to help the animals. This is the only solution at the moment.”

Zoos in other provinces are not doing any better, with food shortages and not enough space to host additional animals, according to the official.
City residents are also trying to do their bit to help the animals, in the very least by providing food. Despite the hunger throughout Taiz, Masab Al Himiari and some of his friends started a campaign in August to collect money from traders and other charitable residents in the city’s Al Hawban area, to buy meat and vegetables. However, he says, the food they are providing feeds only 3 percent of the zoo animals.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the animals at the zoo, because they are inside cages and they are not free to look for food themselves, so I am working hard to provide them with donkey [meat] and vegetables,” Himiari tells Newsweek Middle East. Himiari is an energetic student who used to work as a charitable fundraiser before war broke out in Taiz. Originally from the district of Sharaab, a rural area, as a child he would shepherd the village’s animals alongside his father. He later joined Taiz University, studying administration.

Himiari makes the journey himself to the Al Hawban market to buy donkey meat, which is the cheapest available meat on offer, in addition to vegetables. But he says that only a small number of people demonstrate compassion toward the animals. The majority believe that helping the city’s humans—at a time of immense hardship—is more important. For Himiari, however, the issue is clear: “If we do not have mercy for the animals, Allah will not help us.”

These personal efforts will not guarantee that the animals will survive. Himiari, a naturally campaigner has a clear aptitude for persuading people to support charitable endeavors. Whilst he was talking to me, his hands were animated; his anxiousness apparent.

He fears that if the war continues, local and international volunteers will not be able to provide nutrition and medicine in the coming year. He agrees with Zabidi; the government must move the animals to different facilities.

Zoo animals are not the only victims of the conflict. A large number of domestic pets have been abandoned by their owners, after having fled the city. Rasheed Abdulhadi, 38, used to own a dog in the neighborhood of Sala. In May 2015, Abdulhadi and his family left the city towards their village in Al Shimayateen district, 70 kilometers from Taiz, and were forced to abandon their dog, to his dismay. “When the rockets started to fall on our neighborhood, we only thought about ourselves, and I did not think about the fate of the dog. So I left him in Taiz city, and I do not know what happened to him,” Abdulhadi tells me.

He says that many neighbors left their pets behind, as it was difficult to take the animals with them. Some of the pets, left out on the streets, were either killed by the bombardment or by starvation. The regret, for having left them behind, is keenly felt.

Mohammed Salah, a resident in Al Shamasi neighborhood, says that the dogs are afraid of the airstrikes and shelling. Some dart to any open door when they hear the sound of bombs. “I live in a room overlooking the street, and I do not usually close the door. So there is a female dog who comes directly to my room whenever there is an airstrike or a rocket,” Salah adds.

Others managed to take their pets with them as they fled Taiz. Hilmi Al Sawa, who escaped the city in June to head for his village, says he brought along the cat because of his four-year-old daughter.

“My daughter, Iman, loves the cat so much, she insisted we bring it with us to the village. So I took the cat with us because of her; even though many people have abandoned the animals,” Sawa tells Newsweek Middle East. But Sawa, 48, is devastated about the loss of his home, moreso than care of his daughter’s cat. His thoughts weigh heavily on his mind; when he and his family were displaced, they moved into his cousin’s house. He now depends on wife, who works as a teacher, for income as he has his employment as a contractor.

Farms in Taiz are not faring any better. Livestock, one of the main income sources for people in rural areas, have also been dying due to the spread of disease and the scarcity of vaccines.

Omar Al Ghorabi, an elderly shepherd in his 60s from Al Ghoor in the Saber Mountain area, says that when his goats contracted a disease he went from one veterinarian to another seeking treatment and vaccination, only to be told time and again that the medication was out of stock due to the siege imposed on Taiz. The disease soon spread to the rest of the herd.

He was left with no choice other than to “keep five goats each in a separate room, as there were no signs of the disease. And when the goat starts to bleat, it dies on the same day, so there is no time to separate the sick goat” from the healthier stock.

Ghorabi, a gaunt, taciturn man, has learnt his craft from his father, who was also a shepherd. He was keen to keep up with the immunization of his livestock, and to prevent any animals from falling sick and diseases from spreading. Last year, however, he was unable to immunize them, as war had broken out. His grueling work is writ large on his features; his face wears the signs of toiling long hours in the sun.

There are no exact figures for the losses in livestock, but Ghorabi is just one case among many other shepherds who are unable to treat or vaccinate their animals.

“I hope that the warring sides in Taiz stop the war [so that I can] vaccinate my goats and get medicines for them. I have already lost eight goats in the past year, and I usually lose one or two [a year]. Should the war continue in Taiz, I may lose all,” Ghorabi adds.

Adeelah Al Qirshi, a veterinarian at the Ministry of Agriculture’s office in Taiz, said that humanitarian organizations are more focused on delivering medical supplies for the city’s human residents, and there are no organized efforts to care for the animals.

“The Ministry of Agriculture used to provide the veterinaries in Taiz with the medicines for animals, and [it] also used to organize vaccination campaigns, but during the last year, the ministry has not provided any help for the animals in Taiz,” Qirshi adds.

She says that the ministry’s office in Taiz has been closed since the beginning of the war, because it could not operate under such circumstances. “Some veterinarians plan to personally deliver the medicines to Taiz to help the animals,” Qirshi says. The downside, however, is that the ministry will not contribute to their expensive cost, which still falls on the shoulders of volunteers.

In wars, tragedy does not discriminate. Every aspect of life is affected. It leaves no stone untouched, no tree standing. The human spirit is often broken beyond recognition. Humans, however, are resilient. They will rebuild and those who survive will tell their story. But who will speaks for the animals?

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