By Muna Ali, Palestinian Animal League

In late January 2015, a petition was established to close the “world’s worst zoo”. Pictures of animals’ decaying bodies and others of animals, still alive but in poor conditions and rudimentary enclosures, were published in international press. The petition, which calls upon the owner of the zoo to close the gates and “allow the surviving animals to be taken to a sanctuary where they can receive regular care”, has now reached almost 71,000 signatures. The zoo in question is in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza Zoo

In this article, we do not seek to justify the neglect or suffering of any animal, nor do we seek to endorse the holding of animals captive for their lifetimes in zoos. However, by placing the story circulating about the Gaza Zoo in context we hope to demonstrate the deeply complex situation our organization operates within each day. The horrible situation for the animals is Gaza Zoo represents perfectly how infringements of human rights can, and do, have significant impacts on the ability to protect the rights of animals and the wider environment. We believe that both human rights and animal rights concerns can, and should, be tackled in tandem and this is the overriding ethos of the Palestinian Animal League.

In July 2014, tensions between Israel and Hamas intensified which led to a full-scale war in Gaza; this one far deadlier than the previous in 2008-2009. The Israeli army (IDF) launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’ on July 8 2014. On July 17 2014, Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip. Around 2,200 Gazans were killed and thousands more injured in the vicious attacks after Israel intensified its bombardment of the area. With borders blockaded by Israel, there was no way out for those in dire need of medical treatment, or simply seeking to flee the relentless attacks. Nor could aid reach those who so desperately needed it. The war came to an end after 50 days of conflict when a cease-fire was agreed upon on 26 August 2014. By the time the bombing stopped, Gaza was devastated with thousands of children orphaned, thousands more people left homeless and countless without access to food clean water, gas, electricity and even clothing.

The winter season hasn’t made things any easier, either, with the freezing cold weather and many people lacking proper housing, warm clothing or heaters to warm their homes. Local and international aid workers carrying essential supplies for the refugees have also been denied entrance into the Strip by Israeli forces.

Gaza Zoo 2

While Gaza was faced with a terrible crisis, civilians weren’t the only ones who were left for dead. Animals also fell victim to bombardment and missile attacks. The zoo in Gaza was hit by Israeli drones which led to the death of many of the animals. Lions, monkeys, tigers, various species of birds and many more were either killed by missile attacks or starved to death. The zoo owner, Mohammad Owaida, said fighting in the region prevented him from reaching the animals and tending to their care. While Owaida may not be guilty of deliberately neglecting those animals, many will agree that certain precautions and measures could have been put in place out even before the start of the war. For example Owaida could have left extra food and water for his animals; but then nobody could have known that the devastating attacks would continue for some 50 days. Some argue that, given the precarious political situation in the area, there should be no zoo there in first place as the threat of bombings and other attacks should have been known to the owner.

Those who share with us a belief that animals deserve to be treated with respect and afforded rights would argue that the zoo should never have been there; not because of the perpetual threat of attack, but because a zoo, whether in Gaza, New York or London, is no place for an animal to live. Animals imprisoned in zoos are kept in unnatural surroundings, often far from their natural home and the climate their species has adapted to over millennia. Traumatized, confined, separated from their families, and made a spectacle for humans’ amusement. Indeed, apart from well-equipped and spacious sanctuaries seeking to properly rehabilitate animals in need, zoos function as nothing short of prisons for animals.

Captive animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them, and as a result, their trauma persists and many even suffer from a condition called “zoochosis.” If you’ve ever witnessed a captive animal rock and sway back and forth, you’ve seen this ailment – indicative of psychological trauma or even mental illness – first hand. This condition is so prevalent in zoos that treatment with anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications is reportedly used widely.

Notwithstanding our position on captivity more generally, the call to move the animals from Gaza Zoo to a sanctuary is laudable but outside of the realms of possibility while the blockade of Gaza continues. With the exception of three lions, who were moved from another zoo in the area during one of the short summer ceasefires following work by PAL, our colleagues in Egypt and other international NGOs, the animals cannot leave any more than the people can. The animals cannot receive proper medical care any more than the people can. The zoo owner is perhaps not without blame, but we must look further than the dilapidated enclosures and starving animals if we are to see the bigger picture.

So what can be done? The Palestinian Animal League has been working to send medical supplies to another zoo in the same area, in order to alleviate the worst of the suffering of the animals and our work was instrumental in seeing the lions taken to safety over the course of the summer. We support the suggestion that the zoo should not take on any more animals but calls to move the animals to a sanctuary means opening the borders; for animals and people. And this fundamental obstacle is out of our, and the zoo owner’s, control. We will continue to do all that we can to improve the lives of all animals in the occupied territories but call upon anyone concerned about the animals and people within Gaza to support the international call to end the blockade. While the blockade continues, both people and animals will continue to fall victim to Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of the Gazan population.