Fathy Jomaa sadly waved both hands to farewell his 40 wild and pet animals Sunday after they were caged in plastic boxes in preparation for transporting them in a truck from his private zoo in Gaza to sanctuaries in Jordan and South Africa.
Jomaa, 52, was forced to accept an offer by volunteers and veterinarians from Four Paws International, a Vienna-based organization, to transport a pelican, four ostriches, two wolves, five monkeys, 10 squirrels, five lions, as well as peacocks, dogs, cats, foxes, porcupines and a hyena to their final destinations, after years of poor keeping conditions that had caused some deaths by starvation. Only quails, parrots and songbirds birds were left behind by the charity’s crew.
Four lion cubs froze to death in Gaza’s oldest zoo in January. Mr. Jomaa opened his zoo’s gates in 1999 for mostly-children visitors in the impoverished Brazil camp in Rafah, at the south end of the Gaza Strip.
The co-owner, with his brother Mohammed, said they smuggled their animals into Gaza through tunnels beneath Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, and paid thousands of U.S dollars. Israel has restricted importing such animals during the 12-year long blockade of the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday, the animals were moved to Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife, located 40 km outside Jordan’s capital Amman. The truck left the strip through the Israeli border.
The zoo was bulldozed by the Israeli military in 2004, and partially destroyed during in later Israeli offensives on Gaza. Several animals were killed during the 50-day war in 2014. And the zoo was reestablished twice.
“By all accounts, moving to their new home will be safer and calmer than the bombing noise,” Jomaa told Mondoweiss. “They became more aggressive. They are scared and suffer from psychological problems due to the many military escalations and the economic conditions that forced me to provide hardly enough food for them.” It is hard enough to feed his own children.
He said that Four Paws had pledged to establish a suitable sanctuary for animals in Gaza if the animals’ health could be insured. “We will wait for long months before my animals might be healthy again,” Jomaa said.
A group of last zoo visitors came to see the animals. Some said the zoo is Rafah’s only escape from the siege. The two brothers plan to reopen the park as a picnic park.
Suhail Zourob, 28, an accounting graduate visiting the zoo, said he envies the animals.
“What a lucky animal who would travel abroad for psychological problems! All us Palestinians have psychological disorders but hardly can leave the Strip, whether via Israel or Egypt.”
Suhail’s mother, Jumana, 68, also stopped by the zoo, and wanted to be sure that the animals’ destination will be “free of bombs.” Jumana had a 40–year old-palm tree near the zoo’s gate that withered and died after the 2014 war. “It was not hit by shrapnel, but it withered from grief,” she said.
Jumana said the animals suffered the same despair. “May God bless their trip to their new home.”
“Any organism will be weak-willed once it feels in is in unlivable careless conditions among wars,” she added. “I hope the U.S understands that well regarding the 2 million people who inhabit this caged Gaza.”
The animal welfare organization is no stranger to the Rafah Zoo. In 2015 it took two lion cubs, Max and Mona, and brought them to the Jordan sanctuary.
Four Paws veterinarian Amir Khalil said his organisation has been active in Gaza since 2014 and has already evacuated and closed two other zoos: Al-Bisan Zoo and Khan Younis Zoo.
Khalil added that his crew made a concerted effort to cross into Gaza to help the neglected animals.
According to the Four Paws website, most of the former inhabitants of the Rafah Zoo will be accommodated in Jordan’s wildlife rescue centre “Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife” – a joint project of Four Paws and the Princess Alia Foundation. Two lions will be transported to the Four Paws big cat sanctuary Lionsrock in South Africa. The rescue of the animals is supported by “the American journalist and businessman Eric S. Margolis.”
In April 2017, during the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq, from the Islamic State militant group, Four Paws rescued a lion and a bear from a zoo in the city. The previous year, it also helped relocate a tiger from Gaza to South Africa.