Gaza's Rafah Zoo reopens despite animal welfare concerns

The zoo is known for its emaciated animals, with the owners struggling to find enough money to feed them

Palestinian children watch three recently born cubs at a zoo in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 8, 2019.  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. / AFP / SAID KHATIB
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A zoo in southern Gaza that closed after a long campaign due to its poor animal welfare record has reopened, with life for the animals seeming as difficult as ever.

It was pledged earlier this year that Rafah Zoo would close due to a lack of medical supplies and facilities for the animals in the Gaza Strip, as Israel continues its illegal siege.

The animal conservation group Four Paws removed the animals and took them to sanctuaries, beginning a large-scale operation to transport 47 animals from the zoo, through Palestine and Israel to Jordan, where the government has given them shelter.

Some of the animals, which included a hyena, fox, wolf, emu, ostrich, porcupine and five lions, went on to sanctuaries in Jordan, while two of the lions were flown to South Africa to Four Paws' big cat sanctuary, Lionsrock.

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

Four Paws paid the zoo's owners more than $50,000 (Dh183,630) in the year before its closure for medical treatments, food and caretakers, with critics saying the owners want to bully animal welfare organisations into giving them thousands of dollars to free the animals into their care.

The zoo's owner insists the reopening is solely for the enjoyment of local residents, however a recent visit by AFP found animals kept in small cages with inadequate supplies. It said they also removed lion cubs from their mother by hitting her with sticks so the children could play with them.

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

In 2004, Rafah Zoo, which is located in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip, was almost completely demolished. Some of the animals were killed, and they were stuffed and put on display at the zoo.

The zoo also faced difficulties when its owner, Fathy Jomaa, was accused of negligence and improper care of the animals, several of which were endangered. Last year, a video of a lion being declawed with garden shears caused a public outcry.

Mr Jomaa blamed the Israeli siege and economic sanctions that have all but crashed the local economy. He contacted Four Paws to help transport the animals to safety.

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

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

He said entrance 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.