A life of its own

The Biblical Zoo is coming of age with a NIS 30 million, 150-dunam expansion.

'A zoo is not like a museum," says Shai Doron, director-general of Jerusalem's Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, also know as the Biblical Zoo. "Here we deal with living organisms - the animals and the visitors. And the needs of both are always changing." Change means growth, and growth needs room - which is why the zoo is now in the middle of a long process of a major expansion to increase its land-area from 250 to 400 dunams. In April, the Local Planning Committee unanimously approved the plan, which is now in a year-long process of approval with the District Planning Committee. Speaking to Doron about the preparation process for the upcoming expansion, one gets the sense that the zoo hasn't stopped expanding since moving to its current site in Malha in 1993. At that time, the zoo only took up half of the 250 dunams it currently occupies. Over the last 15 years, new animal exhibits have been regularly opened, old ones restored and enlarged and research and educational projects that work in tandem with local needs and worldwide conservation efforts have been developed. "The important goal is to bring visitors again and again," Doron explains. "We wouldn't have 40,000 members visiting five to six times per year if we weren't offering them something interesting with each trip." Indeed, for the past three years, the zoo has been Israel's top tourist destination. Most recently, the zoo introduced a pair of endangered Sumatra tigers. The female is already pregnant, a sign not only that she and the male are getting along, but that they quickly acclimated to their new surroundings. The exhibit space spans two habitat types: one grassy with several large trees, and the other rocky, with a pool and more trees. Between the two a passageway with windows has been constructed for visitors to get a better view of the animals while also learning about their history, origin and demographics in relation to other tigers. THE ZOO has moved around a lot since being founded in 1928 on Rehov Harav Kook, as a children's zoo exhibiting animals mentioned in the Bible (coining its original name, the Biblical Zoo). After Rehov Harav Kook, the zoo spent six years on Rehov Shmuel Hanavi and almost a year on Mount Scopus, until it was moved during the 1948 War of Independence to spare the animals the trauma of the shelling and gunfire. In 1950, the zoo was reestablished in Romema, where it remained for 41 years. Currently situated on the hillside valley between Malha, Givat Masua and Ein Yael, the paradisical gardens - with their green lagoons flanked by flowing willows and perky acacias - seem like a magical human accomplishment. The mountain landscape is never completely obscured by the zoo's grounds, paradoxically transporting the visitor elsewhere, and grounding him or her in place. Designing a complex that incorporates wildlife, plant life, water, maintenance, care-taking, safety, research, education and entertainment, not to mention the religious, political, security and even existential concerns particular to Jerusalem, is understandably difficult. One of the ideas being considered for the zoo's expansion is a center for formal and informal education, with a proposed space of 2,000 sq.m. "We're building a new generation of leaders for wildlife preservation," says Doron, noting the zoo's youth movement, Tnuat Noah, which brings together young religious and secular Jews and Arabs to work at the zoo. Another idea is an exhibit called Yemei Bereshit (In the Days of Genesis), which would be a closed-off area replicating biblical conditions, with a prohibition of all modern devices, from cell phones to animal-keeping equipment. "We hope people will become aware of what we lose by not being active in nature conservation." Also under consideration is the construction of a large aquarium, though a small one called "Wet Side Story," costing $1.5 million and estimated to be ready in a year's time, is already under construction within the zoo's current boundaries. ONE WONDERS how Doron manages the development of so many large-scale projects while simultaneously overseeing the everyday activities of such a big and active zoo. The answer seems to be in careful long-term planning by committees that monitor and develop the zoo's growth. The International Zoological Committee, the zoo's main planning body, is made up of professionals with experience in an array of related fields, including wildlife conservation, zoo management, education, tourism and economics. The committee has been called upon twice before, once in 1993, before the reopening of the zoo in its current location, and again in 1996, when the committee created a large document called Zoo 2010. This is the master plan according to which the zoo has been expanding within its current boundaries, introducing penguins, tigers, the red panda, eagle owls, Asian elephants, birds of prey, sand cats, underground world, rebuilding the panther habitat and building the Bible wildlife preserves and Noah's Ark and Sculpture Garden. In preparation for the next decade or two of expansion, the committee is being convened for a third time in November for a week of discussions that will conclude with another plan of how to use the additional land. The process takes various input into account including tours of zoos all over the world, workshops with every staff member at the Jerusalem zoo, and surveys and focus groups with the zoo's clients. "When I first came to the zoo after five years of working in [former Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek's office, I learned that here there is a different kind of clock," recalls Doron. "Teddy wanted everything 'now,' but when you're dealing with wildlife, you can't predict. You can never know how long it'll take a male and female tiger to become comfortable with each other. It could be six days, six weeks, or it could be never." Kollek had helped the zoo raise money to build the elephant enclosure and to transport the elephants from Thailand (at $50,000 each). "Teddy was the zoo's No. 1 friend," says Doron. "He saw it as the most important place in the city, though he couldn't tell the difference between an elephant and a giraffe." One of the zoo's proudest recent moments was the birth of Gabi, the baby Asian elephant, in December 2005. The birth took more than five hours, and Doron personally photographed every image, which later appeared on the zoo's Web site. Most of the funding for the expansion, estimated at $30m., will come from local and international friends of the zoo. "If you walk into any zoo director's office," Doron says, "you'd see documents, sketches, maps, models. It's a process of constant change that takes into account new materials, possibilities, needs." If the process weren't complicated enough, the zoo also has several practical problems to contend with: there's a severe lack of parking, and the only road for service vehicles is the same one that visitors use to walk through the park's grounds. Although the zoo runs completely on its own funding initiatives, Doron hopes the Jerusalem Municipality will help with water, sewage and electricity infrastructure once the expansion is approved. "The zoo's added value is that it's not just a 'zoo.' It brings pride to a complicated city," he says. "Over 350,000 people watched the live Web streaming of Gabi's birth from over 108 countries all over the world - people plugged into this birth in Israel." The positive international attention of this event aside, Doron emphasizes that he and his staff understand that the zoo's priority is to engage the people who walk through their gates. "Our moral right to exist comes from educating and raising the awareness of our visitors."