A southern Gaza facility deemed the “worst zoo in the world” has closed its doors following the successful transfer of 15 animals across the border into Israel.
The animals – Laziz the tiger, five monkeys, one emu, one pelican, one deer, two porcupines, two long-legged buzzards and two turtles – were rescued from desolate conditions by the Vienna-based Four Paws International, which has long described the Khan Yunis Zoo as the worst in the world. After making their way from Gaza to Israel through the Erez crossing, the animals will be heading to their final destinations in Jordan, Israel and South Africa.
“A special challenge was the tight time schedule we had available,” said Dr. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian and the mission leader for Four Paws.
“We were quite worried if Laziz would go into his transport crate without any issues; we definitely wanted to avoid anesthetizing him if not absolutely necessary,” Khalil continued. “But the tiger just went straight into the box as if he knew that we will bring him to a nice home. We were so relieved.”
Laziz the tiger will be heading to the Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, home to more than 100 other big cats, according to Four Paws. The five monkeys, including a pregnant female, will be staying in Israel at the Ben-Shemen Monkey Park’s sanctuary.
Meanwhile, the porcupines, emu, pelican and all the other animals are on their way to Jordan’s New Hope Center – part of the Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife sanctuary, run jointly by Four Paws and the Princess Alia Foundation.
While Four Paws conducted the rescue operation itself, the transfer of the animals was made possible through the collaborative work of Israeli and Palestinian bodies: the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip and the Defense Ministry’s Crossings Authority from the Israeli side, along with the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry.
“Due to poor conditions and the lack of ability to continue proper care for the animals in the zoo of Khan Yunis, we were asked to assist and coordinate the transfer of these animals to zoos in Israel and around the world,” said the CLA’s Uri Madar. “During the last two years, we coordinated the transfer of over five lions, lion cubs, horses and other animals. For us, it’s a matter of saving lives, and we are eager to do so each and every time.”
Prior to Wednesday’s operation, the Israeli and Palestinian government bodies, together with international groups, coordinated the transfer of special cages, medical equipment and medicine in order to ensure the high-quality care of the animals during their travels, a joint statement from COGAT and the Crossings Authority said.
Shlomo Tzaban, director of the Erez crossing, stressed how exciting the zoo’s closure is for all those involved with the transport.
“In recent years, we coordinated the passage of dozens of animals from the zoo in the Gaza Strip for better treatment in other locations, such as Israel and around the world,” Tzaban said.
“We see the good in this mission and we do it out of the desire to help animals that do not receive the treatment they deserve in their previous homes,” he continued.
“As far as we know, the animals that were transferred this morning are the last from the zoo in Gaza, and this operation ends by taking them to a new place that will give them optimal treatment.”
Ahead of the rescue mission, the Four Paws team members said they entered Gaza on late Sunday night and began logistical preparations for the operation on Monday morning.
Originally, the team was planning on saving 16 animals, but two days before the rescue, a baby deer at the zoo died, due to complications from an inflamed wound, according to Four Paws. While local veterinarians had tried to save the animal, they lacked both the expertise and medicine necessary, and the severely weakened deer was unable to survive until the evacuation, the organization said on Monday.
“This tragic incident shows how urgent the emergency situation at Khan Yunis really is,” Khalil, the mission leader, said at the time.
That same day, Khalil received news that two of the zoo’s porcupines had fled their enclosures, but the animals were recaptured in time for the Wednesday transfer.
Although the rescue team members managed to load Laziz the tiger easily, they faced more difficulties with the emu – a fast animal that they needed to catch, a statement from the group said. Meanwhile, the monkeys were among the first animals to enter their crates and watched the rest of the process with interest, the statement added.
“The cages were covered with cloths, but they grabbed through the bars, pushed the cloths aside and watched us struggling to get everything done in the extreme heat,” said Indra Kley, a member of the Four Paws team. “All the while there were sounds of explosions in the background, reminding us where we are and what the animals had to endure.”
Earlier this year, the Khan Yunis Zoo was facing financial difficulties and could no longer adequately care for its animals, according to Four Paws. In order to attract more visitors, the zoo’s owner temporarily began exhibiting mummified cadavers of animals, the group said.
In February, Four Paws responded to the owner’s call for help with urgent food supplies, and in June the organization came to assess the situation on the ground and bring medical supplies.
During this week’s rescue mission, five veterinarians and two veterinary assistants from Gaza’s “Agriculture Ministry” also helped out on the ground, the Four Paws statement said. Their participation gave Khalil and his team the chance to provide some training to their Gazan colleagues on handling wild animals, the statement added.
“It was important that we took advantage of the opportunity to involve local vets in our work,” he said. “We hope that they will use their gained know-how in the future to better help animals in need in Gaza.”
With the rescued animals now on their way to their improved habitats, Khalil expressed his gratitude for the mission’s success.
“So many people have followed the progress of our mission eagerly and shown their solidarity with Laziz and the other animals,” he said. “We are happy that we were finally able to close down Khan Yunis Zoo.”
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