From cramped cages to food shortages to military conflict, the animals of the Khan Younis Zoo in the Gaza Strip have suffered much. But the inhabitants of a zoo described as the world’s worst are about to receive a second chance.
Four Paws, an international animal nonprofit headquartered in Vienna, will lead a rescue operation to close down the zoo “in the next days,” spokesman Nikolay Evstratov said in a press release on Thursday.
The Gaza zoo has earned its dubious distinction because as the animals died off their bodies were preserved by the zoo’s owner, a novice taxidermist, and their mummified bodies displayed alongside living animals. Their aging cadavers have since been removed.
The 16 living animals at the zoo include Laziz, believed to be the last tiger in Gaza, as well as tortoises, porcupines and an emu.
Egyptian-born veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil, director of emergency response for Four Paws, will coordinate a team of fellow veterinarians and logistical support members to relocate the animals.
“The closure of the zoo means a new way of life for the tiger Laziz and the other animals, which up to now have had to waste their lives away in desolate cages, suffering from a lack of food and medical care,” Khalil said.
Most of the animals will get a new home at the New Hope Centre for rescued animals in Jordan, part of the Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife organization, administered by both Four Paws and the Princess Alia Foundation.
Laziz, however, will undergo a longer journey.
Four Paws will transport the tiger to its Lionsrock sanctuary in South Africa, as the New Hope Centre currently has no space to accommodate another big cat.
Lionsrock is home to over 100 big cats that had been held in poor conditions. In South Africa, Laziz will first live in an adaptation enclosure to get familiar with the new environment before moving into a one-hectare space, with grass to walk across, trees for shade and a pond to bathe.
This will be Four Paws’ third visit to Khan Younis this year, completing a process that began in February.
“Early this year, financial difficulties meant that the Khan Younis zoo was no longer able to adequately care for and feed its animals,” Evstratov said, adding that the cadavers were displayed to “attract more visitors and income.”
The zoo owner requested help from the nonprofit, which had previously helped other zoos among the six listed for the Gaza Strip. Four Paws responded by bringing in food supplies.
In June, Four Paws completed a second aid mission, conducting medical checks on the animals and safety checks on the cramped enclosures.
For the upcoming mission, Four Paws has adopted a unique crowdfunding idea: a “Lemon Challenge.”
In the challenge, individuals are asked, in addition to financial support, to film themselves biting into a lemon to share solidarity with the sour situation of the animals and share the video on social media.
Khalil and Four Paws have a long history of trying to help animals in combat zones, including during the 2011 Libyan uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, when Khalil attempted to save Osama, a Siberian tiger at the Tripoli zoo. He was ultimately unsuccessful.
Four Paws began aid efforts to the Gaza zoos in September 2014, after Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, when the owner of the Al Bisan Zoo in Beit Lahia contacted Four Paws seeking aid for the surviving animals. Four Paws described this zoo as “badly damaged.” Four Paws transported three lions from Al Bisan to the New Hope Centre.
Last April, Four Paws visited Khan Younis for the first time, providing medical treatment and food to the animals. Last September, Four Paws acquired two lion cubs from a refugee camp in Rafah. A father of six had purchased the cubs as pets from the strip’s Rafah Zoo.
Now comes the organization’s arguably most challenging mission.
Khalil said that “the hardest part is still ahead of us.”
“To actually get the animals out of the worst zoo in the world and transfer them to their new homes,” he said.
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