Passover break of biblical proportions...

... at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens.

A child and a penguin have a moment (photo credit: MITELMAN MARIA)
A child and a penguin have a moment
(photo credit: MITELMAN MARIA)
On a weekday morning in April the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens are brimming with activity generated by their local residents and visitors from the outside world. A cocky mandrill puffs out his chest and struts his extraordinary blue and red rump for a delighted crowd of tourists on Segways. Two yellow-throated martens – male and female – go about their daily climbing routine without bother, despite a recent tiff whereby Mr. Marten ate Mrs. Marten’s tail entirely. A large school group boards the zoo train. The children chat while waiting for the journey to commence, and a teacher reprimands a boy for pestering his female classmates. The similarities between humans and the animal kingdom may not be as tenuous as we like to believe.
The zoological gardens, or the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, is a delightful oasis that has been located just outside the Malha neighborhood since 1993. Before that it moved between various locations in Jerusalem since opening in 1941.
Zoo spokeswoman Sigalit Dvir-Herz describes the zoo with great affection.
“It is perhaps one of the sanest places in Jerusalem,” she jokes from her office, which overlooks a jungle of greenery.
Of course, she is referring to the zoo’s characteristic tranquility – a place where at any given hour, Israel’s diverse populations converge to admire the beauty and serenity of the place, with its wonders of the animal kingdom.
The establishment of the zoo in its present form was made possible by the Tisch family of New York, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Foundation.
With around 250 species in its care, the zoo prides itself on its conservation- focused mandate, aimed at protecting animal populations and their habitats.
“What is a modern zoo?” asks Dvir- Herz, a biologist by training. “It’s a Noah’s Ark aimed at saving species from ecological disasters created by us human beings.”
Each year, the zoo releases hundreds of animals into their natural environments.
One of their larger breeding and conservation projects centers on the Persian fallow deer (yahmur in Hebrew), an animal referenced in the Bible as one of a handful of kosher animals permitted to the Jewish people to eat. It was thought to be extinct until a population of fallow deer was discovered in Iran.
“Legend has is that one of the last flights from Iran to Israel had four fallow deer on board,” says Dvir-Herz. The project was spearheaded by Gen. Avraham Yoffe, who headed the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Over the years, the zoo has bred and released hundreds of deer to the Nahal Kziv Nature Reserve and Nahal Sorek in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem. Other projects include the reintroduction of the white oryx into the Arava region in coordination with the Yotvata wildlife reserve.
Despite its success over the years – the zoo has continuously ranked among the top three attractions in the country for locals – recent months have seen a decline in visits due to the tense security situation. In 2013, the zoo welcomed three-quarters-of-a-million visitors, and in 2014 just slightly fewer. In 2015, however, numbers plummeted to 585,000.
“Ninety percent of our visitors are internal tourists, and Israelis simply didn’t want to come to Jerusalem last year,” explains Dvir-Herz. “Zoo staff feel the strain but are working really hard to boost the numbers, and we have already seen improvements in 2016.”
A new multimillion-shekel aquarium, set to be completed by the end of 2016, may give the zoo the much-desired boost it seeks, diversifying audiences, extending zoo opening hours to cater for evening activities, and attracting international tourists, who to date constitute only 10 percent of zoo visitors.
The aquarium complex will be made possible by a gift from the Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman family of New York, who are behind the development of the NIS 80 million project.
“The Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium, Jerusalem” will be a 6,000-sq.m.
enclosure built on land designated for the zoo’s expansion. The acrylic “window” panels for the tanks are being fitted with the assistance of huge cranes – a delicate process that requires great precision.
When complete, up-close-and-personal encounters with sharks, sea turtles, sea horses, corals, jellyfish and many other unique creatures will be possible. The highlight will be a walkthrough glass tunnel enabling visitors to experience a 180-degree view of an underwater world. Two huge exhibits will place special emphasis on the various habitats of the Mediterranean and the exceptional treasures of the Red Sea.
The strategic planning of the aquarium is being led by Prof. Avi Perevolotsky, one of Israel’s leading ecologists. Scientists from Israel and abroad, together with representatives from leading aquariums around the world in Singapore, Germany, the UK and the US, have been involved in the process to ensure an end product of world-class standards.
Approximately 30 more tanks of various sizes will complete the exhibition, which will include close to half a million gallons of seawater.
“There are not many aquariums in the world that are built inland,” explains Dvir-Herz. “We joke that Jerusalem is finally going to see some fish!” While waiting for the sea to come to Jerusalem at the end of 2016, visitors to the zoo this Passover and beyond can enjoy a full host of activities and new enclosures. Over Passover, visitors can partake in guided feedings and petting corners, and can also view elephant training sessions.
If you haven’t been to the zoo in recent months, you may also want to check out some of the newer enclosures, including the yellow-throated marten of Asia enclosure, which opened in 2014; the Israeli marten habitat, which opened in 2015; and the wolf exhibit, which also opened last year.
Keep your eyes open for some newer additions to the zoo family, including two baby giraffes, which were born around six weeks ago.
For those coming by car during Hol Hamoed (April 24-27), the zoo will provide visitors with a free shuttle service from the parking lot at the Malha Technology Park, where free parking will be available, to the zoo. Zoo staff advise that you start early. • Tisch Family Zoological Gardens hours: Sunday to Thursday, 9 to 6; Friday 9 to 4:30; Saturday 10 to 6. Cost: child (ages 3 to 18) NIS 42, adult NIS 55. Hol Hamoed activities are included in admission price.
Behind-the-scenes tours will be available over the summer, beginning in June, by appointment only. Check the zoo website for more details: