Rescued by an international animal welfare nonprofit from horrific conditions in a Gaza Strip zoo, 15 surviving animals were brought across the Israeli border on Wednesday morning.
The animals were rescued by the Vienna-based organization Four Paws, and include Laziz, believed to be the last tiger in Gaza, as well as an emu, a pelican, two tortoises, two other birds, a deer, five monkeys and two porcupines.
They represent the last survivors of a zoo described as “the world’s worst,” many of whose “inhabitants” were crudely taxidermied carcasses on display alongside their living neighbors. The mummified animals once on display included Laziz’s mate.
Life for the survivors was difficult: little food, cramped cages and fallout from frequent strife between Israel and Hamas. Shortly before the Four Paws mission team arrived in Gaza on Sunday, a rocket was fired from the territory into Sderot and the Israel Defense Forces answered with 50 airstrikes.
“When we arrived in Gaza, we saw smoke,” Dr. Amir Khalil, the head of emergency response for Four Paws, told The Times of Israel via Skype in an exclusive interview from the zoo late Tuesday night. Khalil said he was unfazed as he and his 13-person team spent all of Tuesday preparing the animals for their journey across the Gaza Strip, and then to the Erez border crossing.
Aside from Laziz, all animals will be taken to the New Hope Centre in Jordan, part of Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife, an organization that works with rescued animals. Four Paws runs the New Hope Centre in partnership with the Princess Alia Foundation.
— FOUR PAWS (@fourpawsint) August 23, 2016
Laziz has a far longer journey ahead. He will be flown from Ben-Gurion Airport to South Africa and his new home, the Four Paws-run Lionsrock sanctuary for big cats. He will share a one-hectare space with 18 tigers, trees to provide shade, a swimming area and grass to walk across.
On Tuesday, “the tiger was very quiet,” Khalil said. “If [an animal] can feel an earthquake before it happens, or a tsunami, as happened in Indonesia, some minutes before, he felt he will leave. He was happy to leave.”
The rescue effort entailed cooperation between conflicting governments, even while simultaneously, violence raged on in the territory.
Once the team arrived in Khan Younis this week, the preparation work seemed successful. Four Paws has been working with South Africa, Jordan, Israel, Fatah and Hamas for two months on this particular mission.
“It went well, I think,” Khalil said of Tuesday’s efforts at the zoo, which began around 5 a.m. “The team did a great job. They worked very, very hard, [from] early morning, and nonstop. It’s a big, big effort. There has been a lot of interest. It’s a big, big challenge.”
The team, including Khalil and two fellow veterinarians, transferred the animals into crates of various sizes. They needed to chain and dart Laziz, a nine-year-old Bengal tiger. Although Khalil described Laziz as the strongest of the animals, the team still provided him with ice cubes in the intense heat.
Ultrasounds revealed that two of the monkeys are pregnant. But there was also sadder news: One monkey had a left leg injury, the rescued deer was badly weakened and, in the days before the group arrived, a baby deer had died.
“It was very sick,” Khalil said. “The mother deer was badly wounded, in her leg. Also, one place was inflamed. We have to work with anesthesia. It was very, very hard. [Local staffers took] too much time to help.”
However, he predicted that the mother deer will recover.
Khalil needed some last-minute negotiations when the two porcupines went missing.
“When we arrived here, the porcupines had disappeared,” he said. “We were aware of the situation. We did not trust the situation with the zoo owner. I had to put some pressure. The deal would not go unless [they returned]. We gave a deadline, if the animals were not back, the latest [time would be] 10:30 p.m. The animals were back.”
Khalil, a veteran of animal rescue missions in combat zones such as Libya in the wake of the 2011 insurrection that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, even was able to make a quip about his interchange with zoo owner Abu Diab Oweida.
Khalil compared it to the “election campaign, like in the US between Trump and Hillary. [On Tuesday] it was Four Paws and the zoo owner.”
However, there has been nothing whimsical about the zoo itself since it opened about nine years ago with animals smuggled from Egypt in six-kilometer tunnels. Laziz had come from Africa, and there were also lions, Laziz’ mate and many birds.
But when Khalil first came to the zoo last April, he described the situation as “horrific.”
“There are tiny cages,” he said. “It’s like an exhibit, where you put pictures on the walls, on a piece of land, with animals inside. It’s like some pictures, but the figures inside the picture are alive. They’re live pictures. You’re watching the figures. What does it mean when a Bengal tiger is in a cage 3×4 meters long, 12 meters, very tiny cages?”
Four Paws has been helping some of the six zoos in Gaza since 2014, when the owner of the Al Bisan zoo in Beit Lahia sought help after many zoo animals died during Operation Protective Edge.
Khalil learned of the Khan Younis zoo when he helped rescue two lion cubs that had been sold to a father in the Rafah refugee camp. In February, Khalil coordinated an aid mission to Khan Younis.
“After the New Year, it was a very hard winter in Gaza,” Khalil said. “There was no electricity, and most of the animals died.”
He organized a second aid mission in June.
“There was karma, negative energy, the last two times,” he said. “There were mummified animals, skeletons, bones.” He questioned whether Khan Younis was “a museum, a zoo, really a place to keep animals, a jail.”
It has taken what Four Paws described as lengthy negotiations, but Khan Younis is finally closed and Oweida had to agree not to work with animals again. This, Khalil said, was the hardest part of the arrangement.
Oweida, formerly a woodseller in the import-export business, has bought a shop in Gaza to work in the mobile telephone business, Khalil said.
Khalil called Oweida “just a businessman” who “gave me the wrong impression” and only visited the zoo twice in the last year and a half.
He did say that Oweida’s son, Mohammad, cared for the animals last year.
He also said that the respective Palestinian governments of Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have spoken about a possible animal sanctuary in the Gaza Strip. During the evacuation of the zoo, five veterinarians from the Hamas Ministry of Agriculture came to be trained in issues such as darting the animals and taking blood samples.
“There were some positive signs,” Khalil said, “a lot of good signs at the local level.”
But, he said, “it’s also very clear for us that the only way is not to support, but to take animals out and close the zoos.”