Five lions, one fox, one wolf and menagerie of cats, dogs and assorted birds were amongst the animals rescued on Sunday from a decrepit Gaza zoo, in a major operation by an international NGO.
The 43 residents of Rafah Zoo were sent via Israel to a sanctuary in Jordan, where they will experience something that eludes so many on the strip: peace, plenty and space to roam.
Members of the Four Paws animal rescue group arrived on Thursday and spent several days wrangling the paperwork required to evacuate animals from an occupied territory into a second country for onward passage to a third. The animals were crated on Sunday morning and the procession trundled out of Gaza a little after midday.
“It’s going to be a long recovery process. It’s Gaza, so there’s a lack of food, lack of medical care. These animals weren’t in the greatest condition but they will all make it,” Four Paws’ Martin Bauer told the Telegraph.
The operation to evacuate Rafah’s furry and feathered residents was originally planned for late March, but was rescheduled due to an escalation in hostilities in Gaza. It also met with some local resistance, with agriculture officials reportedly warning last week that they would block what they considered an unnecessary removal of animals loved by Strip residents. But upon arrival, the NGO was given the go-ahead.
Abject conditions at the Rafah Zoo have been well documented.
One of the lionesses had been declawed in order to make her more appealing to cuddle-seeking visitors, something Mr Bauer described as “like having your fingers removed,” and four lion cubs died of the cold this past winter.
The declawed lioness is likely to be sent on to a specialist care facility in the Netherlands, where profoundly traumatised animals are cared for in a calm space with a high keeper-to-beast ratio. She will not be the only Middle Eastern feline: the two tigers rescued in November from an Aleppo zoo, where they had been left to starve surrounded by other animals’ corpses, are also at this haven.
It wasn’t the first Gaza mission for Four Paws, nor is it likely to be the last.
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“There were five zoos in Gaza, we’ve now cleaned out three of them,” said Mr Bauer. He stressed that the rescues weren’t about outsiders parachuting in to take beloved animals away, but a collaborative process in which all parties – Four Paws, the local community and the zookeepers – get a chance to pull together to do something good for animals in need.
“It brings kind of a hope to the people to see the animals helped. There’s always a lot of local help, it’s an all hands on deck kind of thing,” he said.
“During one rescue, soldiers from opposing sides helped to heft a lion crate. It sounds super-cheesy to say, but it’s kind of like the animals are a bridge and they bring people together.”