A zoo with a message

How Beersheba’s Negev Zoo is transforming the way people see animals

July 31, 2019 15:05
A zoo with a message

NEGEV ZOO educational director Sefi Horesh leads a tour.. (photo credit: NEGEV ZOO)

Not many people know that the capital of the Negev, Beersheba, is home to the region’s largest zoo, known as the Negev Zoo. Over 130 species of reptiles, birds, insects and mammals, including alligators, lions, snakes and zebras – as well as a dedicated staff – create a special corner of conservation in a city with over 200,000 people.
What makes this zoo particularly unique is that 98% of the species, which come from Israel and around the world, are native to the desert environment.
“There are no polar bears or arctic penguins here,” explains Sefi Horesh, 32, the zoo’s educational director.
“One of our guiding principles is that we are a desert zoo. This means the zoo will only house animals whose natural habitat is similar to that of Beersheba. We want the animals to have a good life here,” says Horesh, in a recent interview with the Magazine.
One of the most important features of the Negev Zoo, located in the western outskirts of Beersheba on 5 hectares (12.5 acres) of land, is a veterinary clinic that provides medical care for injured animals brought in from the Negev. Oftentimes, personnel from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority as well as regular citizens who happen upon an injured animal will bring the animal in for treatment. The zoo’s clinic provides first aid, X-rays and ultrasound scanning as well as a veterinarian who specializes in wild animals. If more advanced treatment is required, the wild animals are then transferred to the Israeli Wildlife Hospital located in the Ramat Gan Safari.
During the interview, two bulbul chicks that were rescued by an INPA worker were immediately treated at the medical clinic. The tiny chicks, with a meager spread of dark gray feathers, were completely dehydrated. The head of the zoo’s fowl department, Asaf, who cares for birds of all sizes, bottle-fed and watered the chicks at the medical clinic.
“In such cases, if I’m not here in the clinic during the night, I would take the chicks home and care for them during the night hours,” says Asaf. “They cannot be left alone.”
“We are a different kind of zoo, with a different kind of approach,” notes Horesh. “Our work is 24/7, and our employees really believe in what they do. They will do everything they can to take care of the animals, even outside of ‘work’ hours.”
Indeed, the Negev Zoo also serves as an animal shelter for those animals that do not fully heal from injury or cannot be released back to the wild, because they no longer have the necessary survival skills for the wild. Among the displays, one can see a pelican with a missing wing, a snake with a cancerous bulge and a number of birds of prey that have been injured on the seasonal migration routes through Israel.
But, says Horesh, one of the most exciting things is to release back to nature those animals that are completely recovered and capable of living in the wild.
There are even a few exotic animals on display – originally pets that were released by their owners when they were no longer wanted and were found wandering in Beersheba, according to Horesh.
One such reptile is a green iguana named Ananas (pineapple in Hebrew) whose story is printed on a sign outside its dwelling. This particular iguana had been released by its owner and was found on a street in Beersheba by a passerby, who contacted the Negev Zoo.
“It appears that Ananas got too big for its owner; this kind of iguana grows to be very big, up to two meters. It would not have survived a Beersheba winter, as it is a tropical animal used to warm, humid weather around the year,” says Horesh.
“During the winters, we keep Ananas warm in an enclosed indoor display setting, while in the summers he is in an outside display. Ananas has an important message for zoo visitors – to do the necessary research and think twice about how the pet will be cared for in the long term, if it gets too big or difficult to care for,” comments Horesh. “Taking care of pets is a serious responsibility. Releasing pets for any reason puts the animal’s life and the local ecosystem at risk.
Horesh recounts the story of Atlas, the zoo’s only Dorcas (Negev) gazelle, which was initially discovered by police in an apartment near Beersheba. The young gazelle, native to the Negev, was kidnapped from the wild, and his mother was probably shot and killed, according to Horesh. Atlas was taken to be raised for meat.
“Since Atlas was about a month old, he was raised and fed by humans. He doesn’t know how to fear humans or escape predators from the wild, since his mother or herd couldn’t teach him how to do so. He’s been given a home here at the zoo for life,” says Horesh.
One of Horesh’s personal favorites is Luna, a striped hyena, who was discovered and brought to the Wildlife Hospital in Ramat Gan as a two-week-old orphan. She needed constant care, as hyenas lactate every three to four hours until four months of age. By the age of four months, INPA had to look for a new adoptive zoo for her.
Striped hyenas, the largest predators in Israel and native to areas ranging from the Golan Heights to Eilat, are not social animals and live in individual territories. Because Luna was raised by humans and doesn’t know how to interact with other hyenas or find food, it was critical that she remain in a zoo, in order to survive.
“We built a special hyena house in the enclosure for Luna, but she prefers the natural den that she has dug. We were very happy to adopt her,” says Horesh.

HORESH, WHO started working at the Negev Zoo in 2014, spent much of his time growing up playing in nature and avoiding school as much as possible. He grew up in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem during the intifada and explored the nearby wadi near Beit Jala.
“I would frequently skip school and wander outside in nature,” he recalls. “I always wanted to work with animals.”
It was during his travels to Costa Rica that Horesh discovered his calling. He found a wildlife sanctuary called Rainsong, located in the middle of a jungle, which housed animals that had been hurt by human activity, and started to volunteer there.
“I planned to stay there a week but ended up staying for a month. It was one the most fantastic experiences of my life. I left thinking that I wanted to open a sanctuary like this in Israel,” says Horesh.
Upon his return to Israel, Horesh studied life sciences at Achva Academic College.
“It was the first time in my life where I actually found studying satisfying,” he says.
He met the former manager of the Negev Zoo, Dr. Jaim Sivan, at Achva, who then advised Horesh during his studies for a master’s degree in ecology at Ben-Gurion University. Through an acquaintance during his studies, Horesh discovered the Negev Zoo.
“The Negev Zoo was exactly what I was looking for – that animal sanctuary back in Costa Rica, I found it here. The crew and the employees are what make this place. Once you start working here, you don’t want to leave,” elaborates Horesh, who started his career at the zoo as a shift manager. “As a university student, I did everything at the zoo – from cleaning and selling tickets to working with the zookeepers to taking care of the animals. The zoo became a part of me.
“I am always thinking about the animals and visitors who come here. I want people to change how they think about the environment and animals.”
Horesh implements his environment-friendly approach right in the zoo’s office, where no plasticware, including paper and plastic cups, is used in the office kitchen. Instead, just traditional glass cups and silverware are used.
“We have to walk the talk right here. We try to limit as much trash as we can,” he says, pointing to a huge poster, right above the kitchen counter, showing different animals caught in plastic and trash.

HORESH TALKS about the future of the zoo with just as much enthusiasm as he does about its present and past.
The history of the Negev Zoo goes back to 1954, when it started off as a petting zoo in a Beersheba school called Shorashim. It was started by a teacher, Manya Urieli, who managed the petting zoo even in her retirement in 1975. She had the schoolkids take care of the animals, which included mice and other small house pets, to foster a deeper understanding of the animal world among children. In 1977, Urieli was honored by the Education Ministry for her work.
In 1979, zoologist Jaim Sivan took over Urieli’s position, and the Negev Zoo (then called the Zoological Garden) moved in 1985 to a new area in what is today the Neveh Zee neighborhood of Beersheba, with the addition of new animals. The zoo moved again and reopened in 1996 in its current location at the western entrance of Beersheba near the country club. There are plans for a new zoo location in the near future, which will be three times larger than the current zoo.
After Dr. Sivan retired in 2010, new management took over, the Kivunim company, which manages all the cultural and leisure actives of Beersheba, under the Beersheba Municipality. Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich has also shown unprecedented support for the Negev Zoo.
The Negev Zoo employs 20 regular employees, including zookeepers, and 25 guides. The zoo also provides rehabilitation frameworks for disabled adults and youth.
Veteran animals of the zoo include a pair of male American alligators (estimated 30-40 years of age), while the most recent additions from Europe include three rare white African lions from a zoo in Hungary in February. Wildebeests, oryx, ostriches, baboons, ibis, buzzards, eagles and owls are among the different species seen at the Negev Zoo as well.
Horesh explains that tours of the Negev Zoo are available in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Russian, with visitors arriving from all over Israel and, of course, the Beersheba region. Last year alone, the zoo had over 100,000 visitors.
“Awareness of the Negev Zoo has really begun to grow in the past five years,” notes Horesh.
“As a conservationist, the zoo is the best kind of platform for me to reach out to the public and show them how important it is to take care of wildlife and the environment. I wouldn’t be able [elsewhere] to reach as many people as I am able to do here,” he concludes.

The writer, who made aliyah from Maine in 2004, lives in Ramat Negev and works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.

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