A West Bank Zoo Struggles to Survive In The Zoo on the Road to Nablus, Amelia Thomas tells the story of the small, underfunded Qalqilya zoo, where a determined veterinarian tends to a group of ragtag animals in facilities that have fallen into disrepair after decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
NPR logo

A West Bank Zoo Struggles to Survive

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90006859/90006301" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A West Bank Zoo Struggles to Survive

A West Bank Zoo Struggles to Survive

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90006859/90006301" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Right now, in the midst of war, sometimes the unexpected manages to survive. Such is the case with the municipal zoo of Qalqilya, a town located on the western edge of the West Bank, which is almost completely enclosed by Israel's security barrier. The zoo, filled with ragtag animals and a handful of people is led by a determined zoologist, Dr. Sami Khader.

Dedicated and apolitical, Dr. Sami, as he is known, is fiercely devoted to the animals and has kept the zoo running even during the violence of the intifadas. In her book, "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus," journalist Amelia Thomas tells the story of this remarkable zoo. If you have a question about the last zoo in the West Bank, or have visited a wartime zoo, tell us your story.

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Amelia Thomas joins us now from a studio in Jerusalem. So good to have you with us, Amelia.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you for having me on the show.

NEARY: I have to admit I was very surprised to learn that there was a zoo on the road to Nablus in the West Bank. How did you find out about it?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I was as surprised, I think, as you. I was fairly new to the region as a journalist, and somebody told me that there was a zoo somewhere in the West Bank. The last zoo in the Palestinian Territories. And I kind of really couldn't believe it. I've done a few stories here and I knew that it seemed very improbable that there might be rhino or a hippo or a couple of lions or something somewhere in the heart of the West Bank. So I went along to find out, and sure enough there was.

NEARY: And what did you discover when you first went there? Tell us about your first introduction to the zoo.

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I actually went there to do a fairly short newspaper article about the existence of the zoo, just to see whether - you know, to satisfy my curiosity and see whether it really existed at all.

And when I got there, I did discover this incredible sanctuary in the middle of what's a very difficult area of the world. There was a giraffe and some lions and a hippo and a few other animals. Quite a lot of other animals, a surprising amount. And one incredibly enigmatic, charismatic zoo vet, who's the only Palestinian zoo vet. And I started to do the story and I realized right away that there was much more of a story than you could cover in one newspaper article.

NEARY: Now before we get to that zoo vet, Dr. Sami Khader, who you refer to as Dr. Sami, and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, that's right, yeah.

NEARY: You can certainly correct me if I'm not. You just mentioned what a difficult area this is. I think we need to set the stage for people. Let people understand what this town is like. What, you know, what the situation is like there.

Ms. THOMAS: Right. Qalqilya is a - it's traditionally a farming town on the very edge of the West Bank. So that means that it's on the western edge of the West Bank. I think it's actually the closest Palestinian town to Israel. What's happened over the last few years is that as the security barrier, Israel's security barrier has been built, it's been built almost 360 degrees around the town. So it's left Qalqilya with one way - in the last few years, it's only been one way in and out of the city, which is policed with a couple of checkpoints and a security barrier. So basically, the people of Qalqilya - there's about 40,000 people, can't go out of Qalqilya very easily, and no one else can come in. The zoo is pretty much in the middle of that town.

NEARY: All right. We're talking with Amelia Thomas. She's the author of "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus." She wrote a book about the last Palestinian zoo. If you'd like to join our conversation, if you have any questions for her, the number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-8255. And tell us a bit about Dr. Sami and why he is such a charismatic character.

Ms. THOMAS: Dr. Sami has been at the zoo for the last five or six years. He arrived just before the second intifada broke out, so he wrote in a period of peace in between the two intifadas, when life was looking pretty hopeful for the people of Qalqilya. He's a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Saudi Arabia and he trained as a zoo vet there in Saudi Arabia, although he'd never been able to actually practice most of his veterinary skills until he went to Qalqilya.

His wife is originally from Qalqilya, so he went back to Qalqilya to find a wife and there he met the mayor of the town who wanted to start a zoo. And yeah, from there he decided that his hometown and his homeland was calling to him. So he moved back to the Palestinian Territories and yeah, established himself as the only - he's the only zoo vet that I know of, Palestinian zoo vet, and he took over the zoo.

The zoo was going through a fairly good time. But as soon as the second intifada hit, it became - life in Qalqilya, as it did in the West Bank, crumbled for the people and also for the animals. And he managed to keep the zoo going throughout that, with a lot of hope and a lot of humor and just persistence. He's probably the most persistent person I've ever met.

NEARY: Why a zoo? Why a zoo in a place like this town in the West Bank, which is facing so many incredible problems?

Ms. THOMAS: The zoo is very important to the people of Qalqilya and indeed, for the people of the West Bank, as well, I think. It is probably one of the only things for children to do for recreation. You know, it's important to realize for people there, there aren't any cinemas, there aren't any theaters, there's nowhere - there's hardly any youth groups, there's nowhere for kids to go. So the zoo, it's a little green kind of sanctuary in the middle of a place that's very hard to get around.

The children have very little freedom in their lives and it does offer children - whatever, you know, one's thoughts on zoos in general and animals in captivity, it offers the children a chance to see animals they would never otherwise see. And also it offers children a chance of something to do, somewhere to go and see something that's outside their everyday lives.

NEARY: I'm talking with Amelia Thomas about her book "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus." If you'd like to join the conversation the number is 800-989-8255 and we're going to take a call now from Chris, who's calling from Oregon. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Good afternoon. I think it's marvelous and it's quite hopeful to know there is a zoo there, but the thought occurred to me, by reporting this so nationally and across the world, wouldn't this reporting put the zoo at risk for terrorist activity?

Ms. THOMAS: The zoo, actually, has been caught up a couple of times in fighting that's broken out there. One of the main things is in 2001, during the second intifada, troops, Israeli troops stationed themselves at a school which backs onto the zoo and there was some sort of gunfire from the school during the night, and a couple of animals - there have been some animal causalities, absolutely. But I think the, you know, the Israeli authorities are very aware that there is a zoo there and in recent years, since the situation has subsided somewhat, you know, there haven't really been any major casualties at the zoo.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call. Let's take a call now from Tyler and Tyler is calling from Indiana, I believe. Hi, Tyler.

TYLER (Caller): Hello, thanks for your time. I was just wondering, can you comment about the overall mood of the visitors, was it an uplifting feel or how was that?

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. One of the problems, really, in the West Bank is people are very short of money. A lot of people exist on food rations from the UN, and so a problem has been in recent years that people can't afford to take their children to the zoo. You know, they're choosing between food on the table and something for the children to sort of lift their spirits. So in general, in day-to-day life, you go to the zoo and there aren't many people there at all.

But what the municipality has been trying to do is open up the zoo for free days. So there are a few days every couple of months where it's completely free entry. Entry usually is about 50 cents. Fifty American cents, so it's not very much and it's half for the children, but still that's a lot for most people there. And on days when it's free, the zoo is full and it's very uplifting. It's full of children. Children are running around and acting like children would anywhere in the world.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call, Tyler.

TYLER: Thank you.

NEARY: You know, given the situation you've just described, how difficult it is for people get food for themselves, it's hard to imagine what shape the animals are in. How do you sustain the animals in those conditions?

Ms. THOMAS: There's a lot of help from the people of Qalqilya. It's perhaps something that might not be particularly palatable to the West, but what happens is a lot of the food that is brought for the carnivores is donkeys that have been used, sort of, as farm animals and have been used to plow fields and things. And when they come to the end of their life, they are used to feed the big cats and things like that. And so that's been one way of sustaining the zoo through the hardest times.

And the local farmers, whenever there's been a problem, whenever there's been a curfew, and there's been some curfews that have been four weeks long, have banded together, brought food in, brought food from their fields and food that they couldn't get to the markets to keep all the animals alive. And that's really something that you see through the history of zoos, that whenever there has been a zoo in crisis or in war time, the people of the city or the town have tended to band together to keep their zoo alive as sort of a symbol that life goes on.

NEARY: Yeah, and you, in your book, you use some of the animals also as characters. I mean, you seem to have gotten attached to some of the animals.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, definitely. There's lots of animals that were really incredible characters to get to know. There's a baby monkey called Rambo who was hand-raised by Dr. Sami and caused havoc at home because his wife can't stand monkeys. And also an ibex, small ibex called fou-fou(ph) who ate her rugs and ate her pot plants and just caused a nuisance in the house. But she's very tolerant and she let's him take home his animals.

And yeah, there's three lions who became great friends. And probably the best animal, among my favorite animals, is Ritchie, the giraffe, because until now I've never had a chance to be up close to a giraffe before and they are really enchanting animals.

NEARY: Amelia Thomas is the author of "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus," and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're going to take a call now from Maggie who is calling from Fairbanks, Alaska. Hi, Maggie.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi, Amelia. I was there in the West Bank and Israel last year, and listening to your story is very uplifting, hearing just there are small pleasures in life and this, obviously, seems to be one of them. But I'm wondering if you've drawn any parallels between the situation with them, they themselves being walled-in, compared with the zoo and the situation, it seems that there are a lot of parallels in that.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, you're right. That wasn't something that I sort of made explicit in the book, but it was hard not to think of that. You're absolutely right. The people in Qalqilya have big problems with movement. They can't get to the traditional markets that they would have gone to, or to go to visit relatives in another town. Dr. Sami himself took a holiday for the first time in six or seven years while I was researching the book because it was the first time that he could get a permit to leave Qalqilya to see his mother in Cairo.

MAGGIE: That made me sad. I was there. Experiencing that for myself and just realizing that that's people's day-to-day reality.

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Maggie.

MAGGIE: Thank you.

NEARY: All right, we're going to go to Craig and Craig is calling from Rochester, New York. Hi, Craig.

CRAIG (Caller): Hello, good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

CRAIG: I think you've touched on this a little bit. I guess I was curious about the - you refer to them earlier as ragtag set of animals, so I guess I'm sort of curious as to the condition. And I think, Amelia, you did allude to the fact that it might not be palatable to those of us in the West. As someone in the West who thinks about zoos as having to be such beautiful places for wonderful animals, how would we react to this zoo? And I guess the second question is, is there ever a debate among the town of whether this zoo should stay open? Has that ever been a question? Thank you.

Ms. THOMAS: Well, one of the main things of the book is Dr. Sami's just absolute grand desire, his dream to turn the zoo into what he calls an "international zoo." He's really aware of how zoos are in other parts of the world, and his dream is to make Qalqilya's zoo as good a place to live for animals as any zoo would be anywhere in what we would see as a great zoo. And that's his quest throughout the book, from the beginning, which is his, sort of, plan to set those wheels in motion. And that's what I followed throughout the narrative, is his dream to sort of - to hopefully get to the point where he has what in his eyes is an international zoo.

In terms of the West Bank and whether people are trying to sort of debate whether or not this should occur, they're doing their best. They're absolutely doing their best with the few materials and the few resources they have. They are putting a lot of energy and time into making the zoo animals lives as comfortable as they can be, and sometimes more comfortable than the people themselves.

CRAIG: Is there a place, an online site for this zoo, is there a place where we can go and look and give support ourselves?

Ms. THOMAS: Not currently, no, there isn't. That's something that's actually quite interesting, was that a lot of zoos in wartime, around the world, have, in recent wartimes especially, in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Sarajevo, have attracted the attention and the sympathy of the outside world who have then gone in and brought vets or set up funds. And what was quite interesting, what interested me was that Qalqilya was a little bit forgotten. It occurred to some journalists to write stories about the zoo during the intifadas and during their hardest times, but it never really attracted the international sympathy that other wartime zoos have recently received.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Craig. What of this grand dream of Dr. Sami? Do you think that it really could happen, given the situation in Qalqilya and in the West Bank?

Ms. THOMAS: Yeah. It's a hard question. He's - since I've been following the zoo, it's absolutely improved, it has. However, he hasn't really had access to visit some of the best zoos in the world and see how life is there. So his interpretation, you know, as far as he can see. And I don't think he'll stop until he gets there. That's one of the most incredible things. He's very indomitable. He's not going to stop going. So, there is a chance that one day it will reach the standards that we kind of think of as an international zoo.

NEARY: Well, one of the ways is that zoos grow is that the animals that are there give birth to other animals and then those animals... What happens to babies that are born to animals at this zoo, do they survive?

Ms. THOMAS: Unfortunately, there haven't been many births lately. A lot of the animals that have died, either of natural causes or due to fighting in the intifada haven't been replaced because Dr. Sami doesn't really have any kind of access to greater stocks of animals. He's been relying on the past few years pretty much on Israel's castoffs, animals that come from other zoos in Israel that they don't need them anymore. So therefore, he doesn't tend to have too many breeding pairs.

NEARY: All right, Amelia, we're going to have to end it right there. I'm sorry. But it was great talking to you and a very interesting book. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. THOMAS: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Amelia Thomas is a journalist and her book is "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus." She joined us from a studio in Jerusalem, in Israel, and to read an excerpt from "The Zoo on the Road to Nablus," go to npr.org/talk. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.