In Khan Younis, south of Gaza, empty cages in the city’s sole zoo have been overtaken by untrimmed grass and dirt. An eerie silence fills the once bustling tourist attraction, home to a wide variety of wild animals, including lions, tigers, hyenas, crocodiles, zebras and monkeys.
With a decade-long Israeli siege, visitors from other parts of the Gaza Strip are now a rare sight. And even if anyone did venture into the zoo, they will be deeply disappointed to find that most of the animals have died.
With a handful of wild animals left, the zookeeper is trying to sell them in a last attempt to save their lives. The sparrows’ piping comes from the trees around the perished zoo rather than their cages. There was once life here, where death now prevails.
Mohammed Ewida, 26, stands among the corpses of his animals, once gathered by his father to fulfill his “big dream” of opening a zoo in Khan Younis. This dream has now crumbled due to the repeated Israeli aggressions over the years, especially the brutal Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.
“During the 51 days of [the 2014] war, many animals starved to death because no one was able to reach the zoo to feed them. This is the biggest loss,” Ewida tells Newsweek Middle East as he carries the corpse of an embalmed tigress, who had died then.
Other animals died due to shrapnel or by inhaling toxic air from exploding missiles. With no immediate veterinary help available, the animals faced a slow and agonizing death.
The high number of deaths is shocking, to say the least.
Of the zoo’s 200 animals, from 60 different species, only 20 are left, Ewida says. They include a pair of tortoises, four monkeys, two hawks, a tiger some local dogs and cats. He doubts that they will survive much longer if the siege persists.
The dire economic situation in Gaza, the severe blow dealt to the tourism sector and the lack of trained help, are also taking a toll on the zoo’s remaining residents.
As we take a stroll among the cages and inspect the abandoned cafeteria, one cannot help but notice how gloomy the place looks. To make matters worse, Ewida recounts a heartbreaking story of love and loss. Two weeks ago, the “wife of the zoo’s resident pelican” died. She collapsed near the heap of bones of other cadavers.
Since then, her mate has stood still next to her decaying body in one corner; one would think he had turned into stone. Is he unwilling to fly away out of grief? Or is he too hungry and fatigued to move? The question remains unanswered.
Ewida then shows me the skull of a deer who died in “2012, during Israel’s Pillars of the Cloud aggression, which also killed a lion.”
At the time of the interview, Ewaida said the zoo had one surviving tiger, and that “beautiful animal hadn’t eaten in three days.”
He says he is trying to “find a good home that can provide the poor animals with proper food and shelter.” He also hopes to “compensate for the losses” his family business has suffered.
“I am in need for somebody to feed our animals and provide them with veterinary care, or at least to buy the animals especially the tiger,” Ewida says.
Ewida spends a minimum of $150 a day to maintain the zoo. This includes the salary of the only hired help who is looking after the remaining animals. The zookeeper has to pay more to buy food and medication for the zoo’s dwellers.
“This sum does not include the price of renting the 8,000 square meters of land and taking care of the trees,” says Ewida.
“The tiger’s meat alone costs about $50 per day. It should be eating more, but we cannot afford to buy the needed amount of food.”
According to Ewida, some people have suggested that he feeds the last surviving ostrich to the tiger, a suggestion he strongly rejects.
“Here, the ostrich coasts about $1,800. Besides I cannot bare to see the tiger eating it. No way. But if I manage to sell it, I would be able to buy lots of food for the tiger,” he adds.
Neither the zoo, nor Ewida, has received any significant financial aid in the past from the government or nonprofit organizations to help provide for his animals.
However, he does hope that animal rights activists and foundations would become more involved in helping save the animals and redeem a part of the $200,000 his family has lost so far on the project.
He did mention, however, that a nonprofit Austrian organization once sent him money to buy food for the animals.
Ewida reminisces over the zoo’s “golden age,” prior to the 2006 Israeli aggression, when schools buses used to bring children on field trips, and families would visit over the weekends and during public holidays. He says the ticket-sales points were never empty.
Today they are closed and filled with dust.
“The same goes for the zoo’s coffee shop, where cats run and play between the empty and damaged bamboo chairs.”
Of the Gaza Strip’s five zoos, one has been shut down and the rest are struggling. Most of the animals were smuggled over the years from Egypt, through illegal tunnels connecting it with Gaza. But that was before the Egyptian military completely shut them down in 2013, and before Israel’s aggressions and complete blockade of the enclave that has strangled any chance for normalcy.
What is certain, however, is that if Ewida fails to find new means to provide for his animals, or find new homes for them, then the remaining creatures will suffer the same ill fate as the others.