No animals, no visitors at Gaza’s lone zoo

Gaza’s two “zebras” at the Marha Land zoo in 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

ZEITOUN, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - “We haven’t had a single visit yet through Ramadan, what kind of zoo doesn’t get visitors during holidays?” asks Mahmoud Barghoud, 22, co-creator of the Marha zoo.

The Marha Land zoo and children’s park lies halfway between Gaza and Deir al-Balah on the main north-south highway running Gaza’s length, waiting for customers to visit. In the peak of summer, the park gets a handful of visitors on a good day. During the month of Ramadan and since, there have been none.

Of Gaza’s roughly ten scattered zoos and animal parks, the Marha zoo has gained the most fame for its creativity: in 2009, using women’s hair dye and a donkey, they created Gaza’s first “zebra.”

But in the face of its ingenuity, the zoo has suffered financial and physical losses.

“When we returned to the zoo after the Israeli war on Gaza stopped, the first thing we saw were the dead monkeys. We’d had six of different types and they were all sprawled out dead,” says Barghoud.

“The lioness was dead. The two camels were dead. The two hyenas were dead. Our gazelles, the foxes, the wolves, the caribou, the deer, the ostriches … 90 percent of our animals and birds were dead.”

The zoo became an area Israeli soldiers and tanks occupied during the 23-day Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-09. Barghoud says the family tried twice to obtain coordination with the Israeli army to come to the zoo to feed and water the animals.

“We called the Red Cross to ask for coordination but they told us, ‘We can’t reach people to help them, let alone animals.’ So our animals died for want of nutrition.”

Others were killed by shrapnel from the Israeli bombings, says Barghoud.

“Over 80 percent of the zoo was damaged,” says Mahmoud’s 55-year-old father, Ahmed Barghoud. “We lost around $70,000 to the war’s destruction. We tried to rebuild the zoo, but that required a lot of money, and the money we had wasn’t enough to bring in the animals that we had before.”

The Barghouds say it isn’t the first time they’ve faced difficulties.

“We started the zoo under siege, so we had to bring them [the animals] in through the tunnels instead of across borders,” the elder Barghoud explains, citing the lifeline of hundreds of underground routes from Egypt to Gaza.

The siege on Gaza, which Israel and the international community imposed shortly after Hamas’ election in 2006, tightened severely in mid-2007.

Under full-scale siege, where an extensive amount of the most basic of goods and medicines are not allowed into the Strip and humans are not allowed out for medical care, exotic animals fall low in the list of priorities.

“Obviously, the tunnel route is much more expensive and less safe, so we can mostly only bring in small, fairly common animals.”

Yet, the zoo did manage to acquire lions, wolves, foxes and ostriches in addition to their more common animals.

“Although the lions aren’t very large, they do have to be transferred in steel cages. And other animals have died in the tunnels in their steel cages,” says Barghoud.

The multi-width tunnels vary, some hosting small cars, some just large enough to stoop in. But all share the bumpy, rough ground and dangerous electrical wires overhead which, aside from leading to the deaths of animals, have led to the deaths of tunnel workers.

“Bringing animals in through the tunnels is problematic also because they usually don’t have papers. If we had a choice, we’d bring animals with good health and vaccinations via border crossings. But we don’t have that luxury,” says the elder Barghoud.

The siege not only bans the animals and most things related to the agricultural and animal husbandry sectors, but also hinders professionals in all fields from acquiring advanced training outside of Gaza.

“It’s a serious problem, the lack of vets knowledgeable in exotic animals,” says Barghoud. “When our ostriches got ill, they soon after died because the vet — a cow and sheep vet — gave them the wrong dosage and type of medication. The same happened with one of our hyenas and two wolves.”

Barghoud cites different phone interactions with callers he thinks were Israeli intelligence agents.

“Once, someone claiming to be with the Israeli army called and said if we gave them Shalit, they’d provide feed for our animals,” he says, referring to the Israeli soldier captured in 2006 at Gaza’s border while enforcing the siege and Israeli military control of Gaza.

“Another time we were contacted by the mayor of Ramat Gan who promised us he would send two zebras. But when he contacted us two weeks later, he demanded to know where Shalit is first.”

Aside from these bribery attempts, the Barghouds say they have received outright Israeli demands to stop talking to journalists. “I want you to tell the media that you didn’t lose any animals during the war,” one Arabic speaker from Israel commanded.

In such circumstances the Barghouds wanted to bring in giraffes, but even the biggest tunnels had no room for those. So they got creative.

“We decided to use hair dye, something which wouldn’t hurt the animals, and turn the donkeys into zebras.”

Initially, this scheme worked and children and adults alike flocked to Marha zoo to see the new “zebras.”

“The kids were so happy to see the zebras. And that’s what we wanted, to make them happy.”

Yet now, a mere year later, there are few visitors. One of the donkey-zebras has died of natural causes, and the zoo is a sad assortment of monkeys and birds, house cats, a single sickly wolf, a few foxes, a sole lion and the remaining donkey-zebra.

“Expenses are high,” explains Ahmed Barghoud. “We’ve paid over and over out of our own pockets because we don’t have the customers.”

Frustrated and seeing no solution as long as Gaza is under siege, Barghoud feels there is little reason for keeping the zoo open.

“I don’t want to profit from this park. My children have clothes, I have clothes, we eat. What more do we want? We do this for the children under occupation and siege, so they can play and be as children, because they need this.”

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2010). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.