If you visited the Khan Younis Zoo in the impoverished Gaza strip, you would see quite a variety of animals, but on close inspection, you would realize that over half of them aren’t even alive. The ones that died have been stuffed before going on display to keep visitors entertained. It sounds pretty creepy but the zoo keepers really have no choice. They cannot afford to get new animals across the border, and don’t really wish to smuggle them illegally, and can barely afford the food costs for the few live animals they have left. So it’s up to the embalmed corpses of the zoo’s dead animals to entertain the 200,000 odd people of Khan Younis.
In total, the Palestinian zoo has only 65 live animals the rest of which have all been stuffed. The zoo owner, Mohammed Awaida, said that he lost several of his animals in December 2008, during Israel’s 3-week military offensive against Hamas. He could not reach the zoo during this period and the animals died due to starvation and neglect. “The idea to mummify animals started after the Gaza war because a number of animals like the lion, the tiger, monkeys and crocodiles died. So we asked around and we learned from the Web how to start.”
Photo: Adel Hana / AP
Starting out with just formaldehyde and sawdust, Awaida agrees that he is no expert, and it shows. A gaping hole in the porcupine’s head and the flies swarming around the embalmed animals are pretty hard to miss. Most of the stuffed animals look pitiful, with their bones sticking out. The live animals don’t really enjoy a better fate. The absence of a real zookeeper on the premises encourages children to poke bread, chips and chocolate to the animals through wires and puts them at risk of being mauled by one of the wild beasts.
Photo: Adel Hana / AP
Interestingly enough, preserving animals isn’t something new for Palestinians. A giraffe named Brownie was stuffed nine years ago, when it died during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel. This was in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. Even though fighting has now subsided, Israeli restrictions make it very difficult to get new animals. Amjad al-Haj, the zoo’s financial director says, “We have more variations and different species as preserved animals than we have living.” Soon, a time may come when they will have to call it the “preserved animals zoo,” he states.