KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — There is an afterlife for animals at the Khan Younis zoo in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Animals who die in the dilapidated park return to be displayed as stuffed creatures, giving visitors the unusual zoo experience of petting a lion, tiger or crocodile. But because taxidermy in the largely isolated Palestinian territory is not advanced and expertise and materials are in short supply, the experience can be grim.
Flies swarm around some of the 10 animals that have been embalmed so far. The makeshift cages housing the exhibits — fashioned from fencing salvaged from Jewish settlements that Israel dismantled in 2005 — are littered with empty soda cans and other trash.
An emaciated-looking stuffed lion, its coat patchy and mangy, lies on an exhibit cobbled together from crates and shipping pallets. A monkey had missing limbs. A porcupine had a hole in its head.
The zoo’s 65 live animals, which include ostriches, monkeys, turtles, deer, a llama, a lion and a tiger, don’t fare much better. During a recent visit, children poked chocolate, potato chips and bread through the wire. There’s no zookeeper on the premises. Gaza has no government body that oversees zoos, and medical treatment is done by consulting over the phone with zoo veterinarians in Egypt.
Still, the zoo is one of the few places of entertainment here in Khan Younis, a city of 200,000 people at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. It’s one of five zoos in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated coastal enclave of 1.7 million people ruled by Islamic Hamas militants.
Owner Mohammed Awaida said he opened the “South Forest Park” in 2007, only to lose a number of animals during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas that began in December 2008. During the three-week offensive, launched in response to rocket attacks on Israel, Awaida said he could not reach the zoo, and many animals died of neglect and starvation.
“The idea to mummify animals started after the Gaza war because a number of animals like the lion, the tiger, monkeys and crocodiles died,” he said. “So we asked around and we learned from the web how to start.”
Formaldehyde and sawdust provided the basic tools, though Awaida acknowledges he is no expert.
Gaza’s zoos are used to resorting to odd ways to get by amid the territory’s multiple woes. In 2009, a zoo in Gaza City exhibited white donkeys painted with black stripes to look like zebras because it was too expensive to replace two zebras who were neglected during the Israeli offensive.
Since Hamas violently took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has blocked Gaza’s ports, waters and all but one border crossing into Israel. Egypt has also restricted movement through its border crossing, meaning new animals must be smuggled at great expense through an elaborate network of underground tunnels on the Gazan-Egyptian border.
Awaida said all of his animals except the birds came through the tunnels.
Preserving dead zoo animals is not new to Palestinians.
In the West Bank city of Qalqilya, zoo veterinarian Sami Khader turned to taxidermy nine years ago when a giraffe named Brownie died during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Khader, who had extensive training and experience in taxidermy from years working in Saudi Arabia, stuffed Brownie and moved him to the zoo’s museum. Today that museum includes a hyena, wolf, birds, camel, raccoons and a tiger.
Fighting with Israel has since subsided and the zoo maintains close connections with the Ramat Gan Safari outside Tel Aviv. But administrators say that Israeli restrictions still make it cumbersome to get new animals.
“We have more variations and different species as preserved animals than we have living,” said Amjad al-Haj, the zoo’s financial director. “If there will be more restrictions we may end up calling it preserved animals zoo.”
Conditions in Khan Younis — and its zoo — are far worse.
Whereas Khader is a veterinarian and professional taxidermist, Awaida is untrained.
“I use many ingredients for the embalming, not one or two, and the ingredients and method will vary from animal to animal,” Khader said. “It’s not enough to just go read on the Internet.”
And Awaida does not have the contacts with Israeli zoos that Qalqilya has, a reflection of Gaza’s near-complete separation from Israel.
Like the other zoos in Gaza, the Khan Younis facility is virtually unsupervised. There is no animal rights movement in the territory.
Hassan Azzam, director of the veterinary services department in Gaza’s ministry of agriculture, said, “We have humble capabilities,” but the ministry encourages zoos.
However somber the Khan Younis zoo, it does offer entertainment to children.
Samir Amer, 14, snapped pictures of the animals with his mobile phone.
“I have been to this place before years ago but this is my first time seeing mummified animals,” he said. “They look like they are asleep. I will print out the pictures of me standing next to the lion and put it on my wall. It will be fun to show it to my younger brothers.”
Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem contributed to this report.