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At Gaza Zoo, The Wild Things Return

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At Gaza Zoo, The Wild Things Return

Middle East

At Gaza Zoo, The Wild Things Return

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Almost a year after Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave is still struggling to recover. One place that might not come to mind when you picture that destruction: the Gaza Zoo. The zoo was hit hard in the fighting. Almost all of its animals died. On a recent trip to Gaza, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro paid a visit to the few animals that did survive.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The two lions, Sabrina and Sakher, still don't like to come near the bars of their cage. It's been nearly 10 months since the shooting stopped, but people and loud noises make them skittish. Still, children on this fall afternoon crowd around gaping at the exotic pair. Emad Qassim is the director of the Gaza Zoo.

Mr. EMAD QASSIM (Director, Gaza Zoo): (Through translator) This was the best zoo in all of Gaza. The war started, and the zoo was hit with gunfire and missiles. Many animals died that way. Those that survived ate each other. We couldn't get here during the fighting. After 22 days, we were very shocked and sad when we finally entered the zoo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What greeted them was horrific, he says.

Mr. QASSIM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He lists the animals that made it through the war. There weren't many. Out of two hundred, less than a dozen survived. Rotting carcasses were everywhere. During the war, the Israeli army released footage that it said showed that the zoo had been booby-trapped by militants. Qassim denies that, saying the zoo was a civilian institution that was unfairly targeted. Both sides acknowledged there was fighting in the area. The two lions, though, were lucky.

Mr. QASSIM: (Through translator) The lions escaped. And when we came back to the zoo, we were looking around and we found them in the bathrooms in the office building.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The doors had slammed behind them, and they were locked inside.

Mr. QASSIM: (Through translator) We tried to give them food, but they didn't want any. They could barely drink, they were so emaciated. It took a month to rehabilitate them, and even then they were only eating one-tenth of what they ate before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Qassim says Sabrina was no stranger to adversity. In 2005, she was kidnapped by a clan of bandits and was only rescued by Hamas fighters in 2007. She had been physically mistreated, and her captors were charging people to have their photographs taken with her. These days, the lions are the central attraction as the zoo tries to rebuild. Qassim says the zoo suffered $200,000 of losses.

Mr. QASSIM: (Through translator) We are facing a huge financial problem now. It's costing an enormous amount to replace the animals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The zoo already have baboons, ostriches and monkeys. But there are many empty cages and some pens have cats and dogs in them. The new animals are being brought into Gaza through a network of illicit tunnels that have sprung up on the border with Egypt. Qassim says the zoo puts in an order, and the smugglers take care of finding the animals. The baboons have came from Alexandria, in Egypt. They are waiting for a bear, which is coming in from Libya.

Mr. QASSIM: (Through translator) The smugglers are very professional. The wild animals, for example, are put in a locked cage, and they transport them through the tunnels like that, so they are safe. Some of the tunnels are very large, and animals like camels can walk through without difficulty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Qassim says he desperately needs the help of the international community to make the zoo into what it once was. There are so few things to entertain children here in Gaza, he says.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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