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Some animals from a Gaza zoo are now displaced along with their owner

Ahmad Jumaa, Fathi Jumaa's son, holds parrots from their zoo in Rafah.
Anas Baba for NPR
Ahmad Jumaa, Fathi Jumaa's son, holds parrots from their zoo in Rafah.

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Parrots, baboons and lions joined an exodus of nearly one million humans fleeing the Israeli invasion of the city of Rafah last month.

Fathi Jumaa, 60, owner of the Rafah Zoo, drove dozens of caged animals with him on his escape to Khan Younis, another city in Gaza already pummeled in the war.

But in the rush to leave, he didn’t have enough time or cages to evacuate them all. So he released dogs, eagles and exotic birds, and left behind 12 turtles and three lions.

The lions were abandoned in their cages in Rafah, an active combat zone — what Israel calls Hamas’ last stronghold.

“They will die because they don't have food or water,” Jumaa tells NPR. No one has been able to keep an eye on the lions in his absence, as most of the nearly 1.5 million people who’d been in the city have now fled.

He appealed at the beginning of the war last October for help from an international animal rescue group that aided his animals in the past. He and the group have a long and fraught relationship.

The politics and logistics of Gaza’s zoos are delicate.

Gaza zoos have been closed and animals rescued in past times of war

Jumaa contacted Four Paws, an animal welfare group in Vienna that has extracted animals from conflict zones around the world, including from his own zoo and others in Gaza.

More than a decade ago, there were about half a dozen zoos in the Gaza Strip. They were popular family destinations, providing a modicum of basic care for the animals. Years of conflict and economic hardship have made it difficult for zookeepers in Gaza to care for animals properly.

Veterinarian Amir Khalil from Four Paws International checks a monkey at a zoo in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip in 2016.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS / X01833
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X01833
Veterinarian Amir Khalil from Four Paws International checks a monkey at a zoo in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip in 2016.

Dr. Amir Khalil, a Vienna-based veterinarian who runs Four Paws’ animal rescue missions, has visited Gaza eight times in the last decade to help close zoos and evacuate the animals abroad — involving sensitive negotiations with sworn enemies on each side of the Gaza border: Israel and Hamas.

The first time was in 2014, when he evacuated three war-traumatized lions and some birds with damaged wings from the Al-Bisan zoo in north Gaza, which was badly hit in the 50-day war that year between Hamas and Israel.

“It was dangerous, not only for the animals to stay, but also for the civilians who are surrounding the zoo,” Khalil tells NPR.

The second time was in 2016, when Four Paws rescued animals from the Khan Younis zoo, which animal welfare advocates at the time dubbed the “worst zoo in the world” for its display of mummified corpses of animals that had died due to bad conditions at the zoo.

Closing the Rafah zoo

The vet’s last trip to Gaza was five years ago, to take away the animals of Fathi Jumaa — the same zoo owner who called for help in the current war.

At the time, Four Paws had dubbed his facility “the zoo of sorrows.”

“He was not able to run the zoo,” Khalil says. “He was not able to care for the animals. He asked for international help. We visited him two times. We see the condition of the animal[s] was very bad.”

Jumaa had “brutally removed” a lioness’ claws with garden shears, the organization said. “We are shocked that the owner of Rafah Zoo allowed this procedure,” Khalil said at the time.

In 2019, after delicate and tense negotiations with Israeli authorities and Hamas, the animal welfare group evacuated 47 of his animals. It paid the zoo owner for costs he had incurred while caring for the animals, and the owner signed an agreement not to reopen the Rafah Zoo, Khalil says.

A few months later, he did so anyway.

“He reopened the zoo, put new animals, like a business,” Khalil says.

Jumaa tells NPR it was because he had taken in animals from owners in Gaza who were going to otherwise kill them.

At the start of the current Gaza war, Jumaa contacted Four Paws seeking its help to evacuate his new animals – and himself – from Gaza.

The group told him it wouldn’t accept his proposal to buy his animals, but would try to save them if he could bring them near the border. Jumaa ultimately decided to stay in Rafah.

“We warned him, if he's not able to bring the animals to the border, he might face this situation, what he faced currently,” Khalil says.

Rescuing animals in wartime is a step toward kindness, the vet says

The fate of Jumaa’s three lions left behind in Rafah is unknown. The Israeli military did not answer NPR’s query whether soldiers had discovered the animals.

Meanwhile, in north Gaza, a baboon was filmed jumping across the ruins of a destroyed home and the video was recently posted on social media.

Israeli media reported baboons escaped from a zoo that got hit in the war, and that a military veterinarian took escaped animals to Israel for treatment. Khalil said he was told a baboon attacked an Israeli soldier. In a statement to NPR, the military denied zoo animals had been treated by military veterinarians or had harmed soldiers in Gaza.

Mahmoud Jumaa embraces a lion evacuated from a zoo in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in a small enclosure on a cow farm near Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, May 29.
Abdel Kareem Hana/AP / AP
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AP
Mahmoud Jumaa embraces a lion evacuated from a zoo in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in a small enclosure on a cow farm near Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, May 29.

At a time when humans are suffering in Gaza, Khalil says there is still good reason to focus on saving animals: Hamas and Israel have allowed safe passage of animals before, and such a gesture now, he says, could be a step toward kindness.

"The animal has no passport, has no nationality, and is not a part of the conflict," Khalil told NPR in 2019.

In his last animal rescue from Gaza, Khalil recalls officials on both sides of the border taking selfies with the animals on their way from Gaza to Israel.

“Animals can open borders, can build the bridges between the enemies. Everyone can put [down] his weapon,” Khalil says. “This will be very kind for all of us.”

Sleeping next to the animals

Displaced from Rafah amid ongoing fighting there, Jumaa now sleeps in a tent in Khan Younis next to several animal cages holding dogs, parrots, baboons and lions. His family hangs their laundry to dry on the bars.

His animals have not fared well in the war. He lost three cubs, five monkeys and nine squirrels, and one baby monkey recently died in Khan Younis. A lack of animal feed means he and his family are feeding the animals from their own supply of canned food, distributed to Palestinians in Gaza as humanitarian aid.

“There is no alternative. We are facing difficulties in getting food and water,” Jumaa says. “We share what we have to keep them alive.”

Anas Baba reported from Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Anas Baba
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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