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Even beasts bear Mideast's burdens

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published October 14, 2003

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Sami Khader, a veterinarian at the Qalqilya Municipal Zoo in the West Bank, cleans cobwebs from a stuffed giraffe and calf. The zoo opened in 1986 at a time of relative calm and drew visitors from throughout the West Bank and even Israel. Now few people stop by.

QALQILYA, West Bank - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exacted a terrible toll on humans. It has been tough on animals, too.

Consider Brownie the giraffe, star of the Qalqilya Municipal Zoo. Last year, Brownie was fleeing from Israeli gunfire when he crashed into a pole. He fell down and never got up.

Then there were the zebras, dead from tear gas. And Abdullah the baboon, who ripped off three fingers when he grabbed the jagged bars of his cage in a moment of panic.

Since the Palestinian uprising against Israel began three years ago, the zoo has lost many of its live exhibits. And the ones that survived aren't looking too impressive.

"What do you see inside here?" veterinarian Sami Khader asks, pointing in disdain at a cage of ordinary chickens and geese. "This isn't a zoo."

Compared to Israel's renowned zoological park, Tel Aviv Safari, the Qalqilya zoo has always been a modest affair. But as the only zoo in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, it was a point of pride for Palestinians eager to develop their own nation and institutions.

The zoo opened in 1986 at a time of relative calm and drew visitors from throughout the West Bank and even Israel. One day, more than 70 buses pulled up.

But in 2000, Palestinians rebelled against the Israeli occupation and Qalqilya became, in Israeli eyes, a hotbed of terrorism. Israel barricaded the city and soldiers often engaged in fierce battles with militants, sometimes within yards of the zoo.

Thus did Brownie meet his end.

Acquired from South Africa, Brownie was among the zoo's most popular attractions. He was also "a very nervous giraffe," Khader says. "Tanks came in every day and sometimes there was shooting, sometimes bombing."

Terrified by gunfire from a nearby school, Brownie careered into one of the metal poles that held up his shelter. He apparently broke his neck when he fell.

Nor was that all. Brownie's mate Ruti, 13 months pregnant, was so traumatized she aborted 10 days later.

"We lost father and baby," Khader says.

So far, all of the monkeys have survived, but they screech and run to the corner of their cage if Khader points his mobile phone at them.

They think it's a gun.

On a recent afternoon, the zoo's only visitors were two women eating lunch in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Revenues have plunged from 2-million shekels a year - about $465,000 - to just 170,000.

As a result, the animals aren't getting fat. A rabbit dropped through the ceiling of the python cage is swallowed before hitting the floor. A ravenous bear wrestles a bag of Green Cowboy Corn Chips out of Khader's hands.

Many of the animals were donated by Israel and, despite the conflict, Khader still enjoys good relations with Israeli zookeepers and veterinarians. He often calls them for advice and they in turn call to see how he's doing.

But with Qalqilya shut off from the outside world, the zoo has a problem.

"Any animals I lose, it is not easy to bring in new ones," Khader says. "Most zoos in the world want to help us, but how can they help if the roads are closed?"

Because there are fewer live animals to care for, Khader has taken up a new profession. Taxidermy.

Today, Brownie and his unborn calf loom majestically in a zoo warehouse. (At 13 months, a giraffe fetus looks remarkably like a giraffe; the gestation period is between 14 and 15 months.) Nearby, one of the zebras lies on its side, its lips in a macabre grin.

Khader has also stuffed a lion, an ostrich and several snakes. Eventually, all will go into a nature museum he hopes to start on the zoo grounds.

"It will be the first museum in the history of Palestine," he says proudly. "But it is not easy to build one now."

- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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