Where do Gaza’s lions sleep tonight?

Israel’s siege of the Palestinian territory has forced Fat’hi Zoo’s beloved cubs into a refugee camp

GAZA — Caring for animals in the Gaza Strip took a wild turn last month when the owner of Fat'hi Zoo in the beleaguered city of Rafah sold two lion cubs to a family — in a nearby refugee camp.

The Jamal family, which named the cubs Bobbi and Max (female and male, respectively), is now the talk of the town, so to speak, in the crowded Al-Shabura refugee camp.

Locals say the cubs' presence has elevated spirits in the camp — a welcome change for residents who have suffered eight years of a crippling economic blockade and a seemingly endless cycle of war with Israel.

"Our neighbors are so envious of us having them," said Ibrahim al-Jamal, 18. "They always come to visit to play and take pictures with them."

Saad al-Jamal, Ibrahim’s father, said he purchased the cubs for two reasons: His grandchildren were visiting the zoo every day to watch them play, and he wanted to support the cash-strapped zoo.

Fat'hi Zoo "is suffering from a financial crisis," said Saad, who also goes by the name Abu Sami. "I decided to buy these cubs, which is my way of helping them get through this time." Abu Sami, a Palestinian Authority security employee, would not disclose how much he paid for the cubs.

Ticket sales to Fat'hi Zoo — which is home to the cubs' parents as well as hyenas, peacocks, monkeys, kangaroos and more — total less than $102 per week. That’s hardly enough to keep its doors open and animals fed, said its owner, Mohammed Juma.

He said he didn't want to sell the cubs, but given Gaza's dire economic situation, he had no choice. Israel has enforced a strict economic blockade on the Palestinian territory since 2007 — shortly after Hamas rose to power — controlling Gaza's land borders, airspace and shores and limiting the import of such necessities as food, gasoline and concrete.

The blockade has driven both costs and poverty to record highs and caused a complete economic collapse. More than 40 percent of Gazans are unemployed, according to aid group Oxfam International. Among youths, the figure stands at more than 70 percent. Of the territory’s 1.8 million residents, 80 percent are dependent on aid.

"No one really wants to give away their beloved animals, but we had to,"Juma said. "We can barely afford to provide the animals with basic necessities like food." A full-grown lion can eat more than 800 pounds of meat a month, he said.

‘We are living in an occupied country, facing a horrible siege that does not differentiate between humans, animals or stones.’

Mohammed Juma

owner, Fat’hi Zoo in Rafah

Repeated wars between Israel and Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas as well as Israel’s continuous bombardment of the territory have intensified the effects of the economic collapse.

Israel's most recent war in the summer of 2014 killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, injured more than 10,000 others and displaced 500,000 residents, according to the United Nations. The war left vital infrastructure — including Gaza's only electricity plant, water treatment facilities, schools and roads — in ruins.

Months later, 100,000 people remain homeless, and only a small fraction of the billions of dollars in aid pledged by international donors for reconstruction has come through.

Fat'hi Zoo has not been spared from the devastation. Established in 1999, it has been destroyed numerous times by Israeli forces, only to be rebuilt without the aid of nongovernmental organizations or international governments.

"In 2004, Israel demolished the whole zoo, killing around 80 percent of the animals," Juma said. "In 2008 the zoo was completely destroyed during the war, and the same thing happened in both the 2012 and 2014 wars."

"Each time, we do our best to repair and rebuild the zoo and replace the animals that were lost. But now we have reached the point where our financial status can no longer handle that," he added.

But he said keeping the zoo open is crucial for Gaza's children, many of whom suffer from psychological trauma after witnessing family members killed or injured and their homes destroyed.

"Children come here to watch and even play with some of the animals, like birds and monkeys … All these things make the children happy, smiling and laughing," he said.

The South Forest Park, another zoo, in nearby Khan Younis, has faced similar struggles. During the 2014 war, dozens of its animals starved to death after staff members, facing the threat of Israeli bombardment, were unable to feed or care for them.

Bissan Zoo in the city of Beit Lahiya fared even worse. More than half its animals were killed during the war. 

"Animals are just like humans. They face death if they don’t have access to proper food, care and medicine," Juma said. "We are living in an occupied country, facing a horrible siege that does not differentiate between humans, animals or stones."

With the war over, Juma wants to rebuild and restore Fat'hi Zoo to its former glory. But he can’t afford enough food and supplies to care for the animals that survived, let alone replace the ones that died.

Even if he did have the funds, Juma said it would be impossible to acquire new animals. Because Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt are closed, livestock and wild animals have to be smuggled into the territory through tunnels. In 2012 an adult lion that was "improperly sedated" awoke and tore a tunnel smuggler apart, reported National Geographic.

As for Bobbi and Max, Juma says Fat'hi Zoo didn't abandon them. Rather, he says, the zoo has made itself available to provide guidance and support to the Jamal family for their proper care. He trusts that Abu Sami will raise the lions in a way that will "guarantee their safety and his family’s safety."

Abu Sami believes treating the lions with kindness and mercy will ensure his family's safety. "As long as you don’t harm them, they won’t harm you," he said.

"I am only worried about the strangers who would visit these cubs. But as for me and my family members, I think we are going be safe around them, because they will recognize us and be used to being with us."

But not everyone is convinced that raising lions in a densely populated refugee camp is safe.

Belal Hasna, a Gaza-based investigator for animal protection group Animal Australia, said it is "impossible for anyone to raise such wild animals."

"Saad al-Jamal may think that he treats them well, but that is not true. Their presence here is dangerous, both to them and everyone else," he told Al Jazeera.

While it’s illegal for civilians in Gaza to possess wild animals, such laws are rarely enforced. Aymen al-Batneji, a police spokesman, explained that officers are far too busy dealing with civil matters to concern themselves with people's pets. "We are not responsible as long as we don't receive any complaints from residents," he said.

The government and NGOs are understandably preoccupied with the humanitarian crisis, Hasna said, adding that Gaza has no animal-rights groups. "I want to create my own team — I already have the team members — that would take care of animals’ rights and ensure their survival," he said.

In the meantime, Abu Sami plans to hold on to Bobbi and Max until they become adults and then sell them to someone who can afford to feed and care for them. He has already received an offer to sell them for $9,000, but he refused.

"I want to take care of them myself," he said. "It makes me feel happy and proud to know they're in my home."

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