Experiencing an African safari in Israel

The Tisch Family Gardens are still popularly called the Biblical Zoo for its original goal of gathering animals mentioned in the Bible.

 SUSIE HANDELMAN on safari in  Jerusalem. (photo credit: Rachael Risby Raz)
SUSIE HANDELMAN on safari in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Rachael Risby Raz)

She wanted a safari. I recommended the zoo.

My friend Susie Handelman told me she was thinking of celebrating both a significant birthday and her recent retirement from an illustrious academic and literary career by joining an African safari.

I could hear her ambivalence. On one hand, what better way to launch a decade of renewed exploration than a safari? On the other hand, this particular road not taken would be long, snaking and dusty for someone who doesn’t value wilderness discomfort as a vacation perk. In addition, she suffers from motion sickness.

When, after studious consideration, she decided to forgo the safari, I promised to take her to the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, as Wordsworth would say, “a place unvisited” despite her decades in the capital.

Then came the pandemic, and the decision not to fly abroad seemed more sagacious than ever. Even the zoo became a distant destination amid lockdowns and quarantines.

Recently, I decided to make good on my promise and challenged the zoo to plan the itinerary.

FIRST, AN aside to readers who object to zoos and safari parks, arguing that it is unethical for human animals to exhibit other animals.

I am not among you. Zoos like the Tisch Family Gardens not only provide rare opportunities for children and adults to appreciate the wonders of the animal world, but also play a key role in preserving endangered animals.

For example, the Persian fallow deer that roamed our homeland in Bible times were nowhere to be found when we became a state. Their return is a Zionist triumph involving the Mossad. Four generations of nurtured deer have been released into the hillsides. This is typical of Israel-centric anecdotes that provide added value to a local zoo visit.

LIKE A scene in The Wizard of Oz that goes from black-and-white to color, we leave our urban, urbane lives and enter the zoo gates. We are in Jerusalem’s largest open space, measuring more than 22 hectares (55 acres), a model of lengthy environmental planning to preserve the original rocky Jerusalem hill landscape while adding waterfalls, lakes and a plethora of trees.

The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem which is closed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown (credit: REUTERS)The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem which is closed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown (credit: REUTERS)

Murmurations of migrating birds stop on their journeys, adding even more color to the thousand fascinating animals that live there full-time.

International Relations Manager Rachael Risby Raz is waiting to escort us to the old-fashioned train we share with exuberant and agape Jewish and Arab schoolchildren and their teachers. No zoophobia here. The kids cheer the lions and the elephants.

The Tisch Family Gardens are still popularly called the Biblical Zoo for its original goal of gathering animals mentioned in the Bible. The zoo was founded by Hebrew University zoology professor Aharon Shulov in 1940, as he later wrote, “to break down the invisible wall between the intellectuals on Mount Scopus and the general public.”

We disembark – where else? – at the African Savanna.

Our host is chief herbivore keeper Rushdie Alyan. Don’t think rabbits. Herbivores include giraffes and rhinoceroses.

Alyan insists that the giraffes recognize his bald head, when the 1,000-kilo beasts lope to the fence where he holds a feeding pail of carobs. Standing close, we see their 50-centimeter-long tongues grasp their antioxidant-rich carob pods.

Global giraffe numbers have declined 40% over the last three decades, but Jerusalem giraffes, like Jerusalem humans, are prolific. They share grazing ground with zebras and rhinoceroses, one of which moseys over for a snack, too. Susie thinks the rhinos may look like the behemoth in the Book of Job. And, yes, rhinos are vegetarians.

Speaking of which, wagons roll by carrying fruit and vegetable tithes of Israeli produce. The zoo is formally “owned” by a kohen, so the animals can enjoy tithed produce. Another religiously sensitive aspect of the zoo is the signage about the collared peccary, a mammal with porcine appearance. To the Hebrew, Arabic and English explanation, has been added the Yiddish: “Das iz nicht a hazir” (This is not a pig).

A dedicated area of biblical animals includes ibexes, mountain gazelles and oryx. The horned reindeer, however, are displayed without a mention of Santa’s sled.

We reach “Australia,” home of kangaroos, many moms with joeys in pocket (!), cassowaries and fruit bats.

By now we’re hungry, and our hostess spreads a blue and white check fleur-de-lis tablecloth on a picnic table. Lunch arrives on a golf cart. We’ve eaten in many outdoor venues, but nothing compares with dining in the heart of the zoo!

Refreshed, we arrive on time to observe the training session of the Bornean orangutans. They are participants in the orangutan population management program of the European Association of Zoos, eager to create a backup population for the dwindling one in the wild.

Like all their fellow animals, these red-furred primates receive veterinary care and live longer than in the wild. They need to learn how to stand on a scale, to open their mouths for tooth inspection, and to agree to drops and injections.

Trainer Benjamin Fainsod, who has been working at the zoo since he was 12, gives friendly verbal requests in English to the orangutans. They’re smart, and the training makes them smarter. When Fainsod says “shoulder,” they happily point to their scapulas. Healthy treats are abundant, but training is serious. As they comply, Fainsod gently touches them with a make-believe needle, so that when they need real shots it won’t be emotionally traumatic.

Next door, the Javan langur monkeys desist from their playful acrobatics to take part in their schooling. Only the newborns swing high above and cut class.

We keep walking, admiring the peacocks preening, the two-colors of pelicans balancing, the capybaras swimming. There’s still so much more to explore, but Susie signals that she’s ready to finish her maiden visit. After all, she can come back soon, maybe even for a night tour.

I’m reminded of that story about Izak from Krakow who repeatedly dreamed of a treasure buried under the royal bridge in Prague. He traveled there and was accosted by a guard. When he confessed his reason for the visit, the officer laughed and said, “I dreamed that a guy named Izak from Krakow has a treasure buried under his oven. Would I travel to Krakow to dig it up?” Isak returned home and found the treasure.

Personally, I’ve always wanted to visit the Butterfly Valley in Rhodes. But then Risby Raz mentions the new zoo butterfly pavilion that just opened this month. Count me in. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.