It’s perhaps hard to argue against the title of “the worst zoo in the world” after you’ve publicly showcased mummified animals alongside the remaining living ones. Nevertheless, this war-torn zoo and its macabre show has finally drawn enough unwanted attention to result in a change.
This unfortunate zoo is located in Khan Yunis, the second largest city in Palestine’s Gaza Strip. In 2007, owner Mohammed Awaida poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ill-fated tourist attraction that he originally called South Forest Park. But it was a doomed venture.
Just a year later, Israel launched ground and airstrikes against Palestine that resulted in Khan Yunis, Gaza City and Rafah suffering heavy losses to both property and life. The initial rocket strikes also claimed several animal victims and left zoo inhabitants isolated from care. Starvation claimed yet more lives.
The three-week-long attack – sometimes known as the Gaza War – devastated five different Palestinian zoos. Awaida said he tried his best to keep the animals alive in Khan Yunis, but the attacks, coupled with the blockade of the Gaza Strip that was in place from 2007, made obtaining food impossible. Confounding the situation, Gaza has no animal welfare groups, and zoo staff had little-to-no knowledge of how to treat ailing animals.
Plus, once the Israeli attack was over, the blockade made getting new animals into Palestine unthinkable. Therefore, the owner and his staff got morbidly creative. “The idea to mummify animals started after the Gaza war because a number of animals like the lion, the tiger, monkeys and crocodiles died,” Awaida said at the time. “We asked around and we learned from the web how to start.”
Sadly, it turned out that displaying horrifyingly prepared mummies in the same cages as their still-living companions had its own draw. As one child visitor said, “[We came] to see the weird things that they’ve put [in the zoo]. They’ve added elements that made it more interesting.”
But the zoo’s desperate efforts to stay afloat were hit in 2014 by another Israeli attack, which resulted in the deaths of around 2,000 Palestinians, 70 Israelis and some 80 animals in Gaza Strip. The zoo subsequently had more dead than living animals to display and closed its doors to the public.
But the surviving animals were still there, slowly starving. Soon, the animal rescue group Four Paws International, which was founded in 1988, learned about the zoo and began a campaign to rescue the remaining animals. The animal welfare charity started by dubbing the zoo in Khan Yunis the “worst zoo in the world” and widely publicizing its former mummifying practices.
“Our campaigns are aimed at creating better living conditions for farm animals, wild animals, laboratory animals and companion animals,” the Four Paws website states. “Our team rescues animals and re-homes them in our sanctuaries, where they can recover in a natural environment.”
Despite the public shaming, however, it was apparently Awaida who first contacted Four Paws for assistance. After all, the animals in the zoo had been without regular food and attention for more than a year, and their numbers were dropping fast.
Thankfully, Four Paws was able to arrange visits and provide the zoo with much-needed food and medical assistance to do what they could for the sickest of the animals. Following the visits, the charity continued to work to get the zoo’s poor inhabitants free.
But the situation was grave. “The severely damaged enclosures are covered with garbage and debris,” Four Paws reported. In addition, Dr. Amir Khalil, a Four Paws vet working with the animals at the zoo, told the news source Haaretz that the zoo in Khan Yunis was “less than a zoo. It’s a prison.”
As part of its campaign, Four Paws had security checks performed on the enclosures. The Mirror subsequently reported that the Khan Yunis zoo “houses animals in makeshift cages made from fencing salvaged from Jewish settlements that Israel dismantled in 2005.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the security checks found that the zoo’s enclosures were not only dangerous to the animals safety, but also to the neighboring community should the animals escape. The charity initially stated that it would provide resources and care to the Khan Yunis zoo for three months so that Awaida and local authorities could make other living arrangements for the animals.
But the situation was a complicated one, and Four Paws was not in a position to legally seize the animals. Negotiations with the Khan Yunis zoo’s owner were needed, then, in order to relocate the suffering creatures away from their prison.
Finally, in 2016, Four Paws got the result that it wanted. “After long negotiations, a daring rescue mission finally has the green light,” it announced in a press release. “Four Paws is finally going to be able to rescue the 16 animals from Khan Yunis Zoo.”
The charity had other news too, stating that it would “not only transfer them to new homes, but close the so-called ‘worst zoo in the world’ for good!” Work was swiftly underway to remove the remaining animals, but not before Khan Yunis claimed another casualty. Yes, a wounded baby deer sadly died before it could be saved.
Four Paws did manage to save the deer’s mother, though, as well as several other species, including porcupines, tortoises, birds, monkeys and Gaza’s last known remaining Tiger, named “Laziz.” Many of the animals would find homes in Four Paws’ New Hope Center, but Laziz was to go to its Lionsrock sanctuary in South Africa.
“The closure of the zoo means a new life for the tiger Laziz and the other animals,” Dr. Khalil said. “Up to now [they] have had to waste their lives away in desolate cages, suffering from a lack of food and medical care.”
Awaida was reportedly “very sad” about the zoo’s closing. “I brought these animals from Libya, Sudan, Egypt and even South Africa to Gaza,” he said. But as with much of life in Gaza, managing a successful zoo in the face of the ongoing blockade and armed conflicts proved too difficult. Hopefully now the animals can be happy.