Cramped Gaza zoo reopens, only months after closure

Joe Dyke and Adel Zaanoun
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Two lions and three cubs are penned in cages only a few square metres in size at a zoo in the Gaza Strip

A lioness is beaten with sticks while her cubs are dragged away -- a Gazan zoo closed after a long campaign has reopened, with conditions seemingly as bad as ever.

The Rafah Zoo in the southern Gaza Strip was known for its emaciated animals, with the owners saying they struggled to find enough money to feed them.

In April, international animal rights charity Four Paws took all the animals to sanctuaries, receiving a pledge the zoo would close forever.

But last month it reopened with two lions and three new cubs, penned in cages only a few square metres in size.

Critics say the owners want to bully Four Paws or other animal welfare organisations into giving them thousands of dollars to free the animals into their care.

Four Paws paid the zoo's owners more than $50,000 in the year before its closure for medical treatments, food and caretakers.

The zoo's owner insists the reopening is solely for the enjoyment of local residents.

- 1,000 metres, not seven -

When AFP visited the zoo recently, the badly stuffed corpse of a lion was displayed near the entrance.

An ostrich in a three-metre-square pen pecked endlessly at the cage's bars, while two monkeys sat chewing on litter.

At the far end the lion and lioness were kept in separate cages, each only a few square metres.

The owners were seeking to remove the cubs from their mother to play with visiting children.

To do so they hit the lioness with sticks and banged on the cage to confuse her, with staff later taunting her when the cubs had been taken out.

"A lion needs 1,000 square metres to play in. Here they have seven square metres," Mohammed Aweda, a prominent animal enthusiast in Gaza, told AFP.

"The zoo won't survive during the winter, because they are lacking in daily goods which cost a lot. For you or I or anyone who owns a zoo (in Gaza), the economy is very tough."

Palestinian Gaza is run by Islamist movement Hamas and has been blockaded by Israel for more than a decade. There have been three wars between them in that time.

The enclave of two million people had negative eight percent economic growth last year.

Around two-thirds of young people are unemployed, while nearly 50 percent are below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Many Palestinians are desperate for ways to make money.

Amid international outcry over conditions at the zoo, last year Four Paws reached an agreement with the owners.

In April nearly 50 animals, including lions, monkeys, peacocks and porcupines, were taken out of Gaza through Israeli territory to sanctuaries in Jordan and elsewhere.

The NGO said in a statement it explicitly does not pay for animals but provided funding for "costs for medical treatments, food and caretakers so that the over 40 animals were strong and healthy enough for the rescue and transfer."

In total the amount paid over a year was $55,000, the NGO said.

Four Paws said the zoo's owner promised not to reopen.

Critics suspect the owners of seeking to bully Four Paws into paying again.

"Any international organisation won't deal with this issue easily because it has become trade," Aweda said.

- 'Entertainment' -

The newly reopened zoo's manager Ashraf Jumaa, from the same family that owned the old one, said they brought the new lions through tunnels from Egypt.

However others suggested they were bought from another animal centre in northern Gaza.

He denied they wanted to blackmail Four Paws.

"The first goal is entertainment, not trade. The main reason we reopened the zoo was people in the area that supported us," he said.

He said it would be less expensive because there were fewer animals, but admitted they would struggle to afford enough food once the cubs were fully grown.

"Every day they will need between 22 and 30 kilos of meat costing between 100 and 150 shekels (between $28 and $43)," he said.

They currently receive around 50 visitors a day, he said, with tickets on average costing two shekels (around $0.50).

Four Paws said footage it saw from the zoo was "very concerning".

"The animals are not kept in species-appropriate conditions. They seem to be in bad conditions and urgently need medical attention and proper food," it said.

An official from the Gaza agriculture ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been no coordination regarding the zoo's reopening.

He said Gaza needed a large park meeting international standards.