Out of Africa

The Ramat Gan Safari Park is a remarkable thing to find in the heart of central Israel's urban sprawl.

Far from the sounds of war, the dry, rolling grassland swelters in 40 heat. It is late afternoon, but the sun continues to shine bright and hot. A pride of lions rests serenely in the shade of a large acacia tree as a languid breeze carries the scent of gazelle. One or two of the lions raise their heads, their nostrils twitching as they sniff the air. None of them rises to hunt, however - they have already eaten and are resting in the afternoon heat. A short distance away, a small herd of Thomson's gazelles sprints gracefully across the grassland toward a waterhole - sparkling like a diamond in the golden sunrays - where they blend into a mixed multitude of oryx, eland, zebra and impala, all cavorting around the waterhole as a large hippopotamus blinks its eyes just above the water's surface. Barely a stone's throw to the south on the Geha highway, cars are bumper to bumper in heavy afternoon commuter traffic. Some drivers glance into the Ramat Gan Safari Park just in time to see an enormous white rhinoceros trotting slowly toward his herd. But with closed windows, air conditioners humming and radios blaring the latest news from the North, they could not hear what was startling the rhinoceros - the trumpeting of a distant bull elephant. The elephant's trumpet not far from her small but cozy office causes Michal Samuni to look up from her computer and contemplate her good fortune. Samuni, 27, is the Safari Park's acting spokesperson, a dream job for a lifelong lover of animals with a master's degree in zoology, who's planning to continue toward a Ph.D. "You have to do something you're passionate about," she says, "and I am passionate about this." She is so passionate about her work that her recent wedding to a computer specialist was held in the park. Such a love of animals and the park seems to be universal among the park's staff. By any standards, it is an extraordinary place. Established in 1974 as an African animal park, the safari park sits on more than 1,000 dunams (250 acres) donated by the city of Ramat Gan. The park consists of the famous drive-through open Africa safari land, partially visible from the adjacent highway, and a less well-known zoo. "Many people come, drive through, and don't realize that they've missed the zoo," says Samuni. The safari park is a remarkable thing to find in the heart of central Israel's urban sprawl. On rolling grasslands made to resemble the African veldt, a full range of savanna animals roam at will. Visitors ride slowly by in their own cars or vehicles provided by the park and snap pictures of mixed herds of everything from lions to zebras, rhinoceroses to waterbucks, ibexes to oryxes, and gnus to impalas. Ostriches and crowned cranes walk right up to cars and stare curiously into the windows, while vultures perch on tree stumps and flamingos gather gracefully by the edge of the waterhole. A fence separates the predatory lions from the rest of the animals - visitors must drive by them with their windows closed. The zoo, opened in 1981 with the transfer of animals from the old Tel Aviv zoo, is an example of the modern facilities that have all but replaced the traditional zoos of the past. Instead of cramped concrete and steel cages, the park features large landscaped enclosures that attempt to provide the look and feel of natural wildlife habitats while giving the animals more room to wander. Visitors move around the zoo on foot, at their own pace, under a shady canopy of trees. Samuni points out that along with gorillas, giraffes, hyenas and a host of other animals from around the world - including orangutan from Southeast Asia - is the largest herd of hippopotamus in captivity and the largest bull elephant, almost four meters from his shoulders to the ground and weighing in at seven tons. Together, the African safari and zoo are home to 1,600 animals: 68 species of mammals; 130 species of birds; and 25 species of reptiles. A new area, which will emphasize animal species native to Israel, is on the drawing board. The park's ethos, says Samuni, is conservation and education, protecting the world's wildlife - especially endangered species - and educating the public about animals and the importance of conservation. In addition to consultation and research, a large part of the park's conservation efforts involves breeding animals - a baby Asian elephant was born there recently - for the park and other zoos around the world. The park is particularly proud of its breeding of Sumatran tigers, of which remain only 500 worldwide, both captive and wild. The park has long been renowned internationally for its care and breeding of Asian and African elephants and the large number of elephants born there. As for education, the park offers a wide range of classes for children and teenagers, workshops for adults, and instructional tours for school and youth groups. A petting zoo for small children is particularly popular. Educating the public about the larger issues of wildlife conservation is often easier than teaching people about smaller issues, such as proper zoo behavior, says Samuni. "Some visitors like to throw things at the animals to see how they will react. In the Jerusalem zoo there is a big fence so people can't throw things at the animals. Here, we prefer more open spaces. We had one giraffe die here almost a year ago because it ate garbage that someone threw at it. People just aren't aware of the danger. We ask visitors not to throw or give things to the animals, but some still do it even right after they've been asked not to." Park staff are naturally protective of the animals in their care. Aside from those in the petting zoo, all the animals are left undisturbed and free to be themselves. Animals here do not have to earn their keep by doing tricks and entertaining the visitors, nor are they allowed to be touched or fed. Emotionally involved staff members relate to the animals as friends, and almost all them - even birds - are referred to by their personal names. The big bull elephant, for example, is named Yossi; the mother of the newborn is Varda. "The nicest thing about the Ramat Gan Safari Park is that you can come to this beautiful little place and lose yourself," says Samuni. "Right here in the middle of the city, you can forget all your problems for a while, enjoy the animals and be happy." As she spoke, Katyusha rockets were falling across northern Israel, and families from all over the country were surging into the park in a steady stream of cars. The changing roles of zoos Readers who are middle aged or older can remember when zoos were zoos. Who can forget those childhood summer Sunday afternoons strolling with our parents through a tree-shaded oasis in the heart of a big city, moving with the flow of the crowd? With one hand held firmly by a parent or an older sibling, the other engaged in trying to hold a bag of peanuts, we ambled along meandering paths that afforded views of row after row of concrete and steel cages, each containing an animal that appeared listless and immobile, or restless to the point of madness. We saw, perhaps, a tiger unable to contain his energy, pacing excitedly back and forth, crossing his cramped cage in four strides before lurching in the other direction; a chimpanzee gazing forlornly through the bars of her cage; a dozing bear utterly oblivious to the peanuts and junk food being thrown at him by both children and adults; and, of course, an elephant - chained at a foot to a steel ring set into the concrete floor, his movements constricted by the shortness of the chain, unable to do more than sway back and forth. As children, few of us were aware that we were touring what amounted to an animal prison in which the inmates were being confined in conditions that were not only unlike their natural habitats in the wild but also completely at odds with their natures and instincts. As the years went by, most of these old-style zoos underwent a significant makeover. The concrete and steel cages began to disappear as the animals were moved into larger enclosures, designed with more space for them to move around and often landscaped to appear more like the animals' natural surroundings. Zoos like the pace-setting one in San Diego, California, began drawing up to three million visitors a year, attracted to what the zoos were calling more "natural" and "authentic" views of animals and more animal-friendly environments. While the zoos were changing, animal rights activists were becoming more vocal and militant. Many have argued that the makeovers that zoos underwent in the past generation have been more cosmetic than real, that the zoos' carefully designed "natural habitats" only look real to zoo-goers and not to the animals themselves, and that even with the millions of dollars spent on landscaping and design, the animals are no better off now than they were in the big city zoos of the past. Enlisting the aid of animal behavior experts, the animal rights activists point out that elephants, for example, normally roam as much as 30 miles a day in the wild. No zoo, they argue, can provide an elephant with that much space. Many zoos, like New York's famous Bronx Zoo and America's oldest zoo in Philadelphia, have responded to this criticism by deciding to stop showing elephants entirely. Other free-ranging savanna animals such as giraffes and gazelles may also be phased out of zoo ensembles. While some animal rights activists have been willing to work with zoos, many hardliners have simply concluded that the only good zoo is a closed zoo. Modern-day management, staff and proponents of zoos, however, are almost always equally concerned about animals and often as vocal in their advocacy of animal welfare. They offer the counter argument that today's zoos are no longer about simply displaying animals but about the larger issues of wildlife conservation and the protection of endangered species. Many zoos, like the Ramat Gan Safari Park, breed endangered animals and keep them in safe environments, while their counterparts in the wild move inexorably toward extinction. Today's zoos are also laboratories for research on more effective approaches to wildlife conservation and are often the only places where the public can be educated about the crucial importance of conservation and the need to maintain the world's biological diversity. The coming years will no doubt see a continuation of the debate between zoo managers and animal rights activists. Both sides are working toward the same worthy goal: the preservation and protection of homo sapiens's fellow creatures on Planet Earth.