Behind a cage of brightly colored chirping lovebirds, an empty rocket casing protrudes from the ground in Gaza's Rafah zoo, a remnant from last summer's war. Children squeal with delight as a parrot dances on a nearby picnic tabletop. From sun-soaked steps a lion watches lazily over proceedings. His fur is badly frayed and sawdust spills from his sides — the result of an amateur taxidermy job.
Three wars between Israel and Hamas in the last seven years have taken a heavy toll on the residents of the Gaza Strip. Last summer's bloody 51 days of fighting alone killed over 2,200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis. Around 18,000 homes were destroyed during the conflict, leaving more than 100,000 people homeless. Animals did not escape the devastation either.
Last summer, Jihad Juma — a worker at Rafah zoo in the southeast of the strip — was feeding the animals when he was hit by rocket debris. Half a dozen pieces of shrapnel have left him with jagged scars and a limp.
"We lost about $80,000 worth of animals," he told VICE News. "One monkey, one chimpanzee, two emus, one lion, one tiger, a parrot, three deer, a pelican, dozens of birds, all dead… Most were killed directly but some died from lack of food [and] shock of explosions."
Rafah Zoo in the south of the Gaza Strip has been caught up in repeated rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas over the last decade. Hundreds of animals have been killed in the fighting and the zoo is struggling for money. Photo by Harriet Salem.
It's not the first time the zoo has been caught up in the fighting. Over the last decade hundreds of exotic animals from the Rafah menagerie have been killed in Israeli military offensives.
In 2004 during "Operation Rainbow" Israeli tanks bulldozed through Rafah razing the zoo to the ground, crushing tortoises and other animal enclosures in their wake. "By the time staff got here there was not much left, just rubble and dust," said Jihad.
During the 2008 war, monkeys, crocodiles, and deer were all killed by rocket fire, while many more wasted away from disease, neglect, and starvation, both during and after the fighting.
It's not just tanks, rockets, and mortars that are endangering Gaza's exotic animals, however. With zoo staff poorly trained and funds limited, conditions for the creatures that have survived the fighting are beyond dire.
Enclosures, many now rebuilt several times, are extremely cramped and some animals have just a few square meters of space. Hyenas, ostriches, and baboons paced around trash-littered cages in the blistering summer heat, visibly distressed by their situation. Two listless lions barely had enough room to turn around.
Ostriches at Rafah zoo pace up and down in the sun, distressed by their cramped cage. Photo by Harriet Salem.
Charging just three shekels ($0.80) for entrance — a cap Mohammed said is imposed by Hamas, the strip's rulers — the fee barely generates enough income to cover the cost of feeding the animals, let along improve their living spaces.
Visitors are thin on the ground. Since the end of the last war unemployment in Gaza has risen 11 points to 43 percent, the highest in the world. A new import tax imposed by the Gazan authorities increasing the price of meat by around 50 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) has only worsened the situation.
"It might not sound much difference, but it's a lot of money when you're feeding lions and hyenas," the zoo's owner told VICE News. "They can't live on vegetables. Sometimes if we don't have enough money we buy an old horse to feed the lions… It's not good but it's better than cabbage."
Conditions for many of the animals at Rafah zoo that survived the fighting are dire. The zoo owner says they barely have enough money to feed the animals, let alone build bigger enclosures. This lion barely has room to turn around in his cage. With the price of meat rising sometimes he is fed with old horsemeat. Photo by Harriet Salem.
In dire straits after the last war, the zoo was simply unable to afford to the replace the animals — many of which were originally brought in through now-closed smuggling tunnels from Egypt — so Mohammed attempted to preserve the menagerie's star attractions by stuffing them with sawdust; a skill he learned by "reading the internet."
The owner's efforts have produced mixed results and the display of dead animals still in their enclosures, some accompanied by a swarm of flies, led to the zoo being branded the "world's worst."
After complaints the zoo removed much of the gruesome exhibit from display, but an suspiciously still python in a glass tank looks unlikely to move any time soon.
In a desperate bid to keep the remaining animals alive Mohammed said he now been forced to start selling off parts of the menagerie to private buyers. Parrot eggs fetch around 6,000 shekels ($1,500) and ostrich eggs around 10,000 shekels ($2,000), while baby monkeys sell for a hefty 24,000 shekels ($6,000) each.
"Look around and do the math, three shekels for every visitor is not enough to feed all these animals... So if we don't make money like this then the animals will starve," he told VICE News.
Jihad Juma, a zoo worker, poses with a macaw. The parrot entertains children by dancing but is also one of the zoo's most valuable commodities as its eggs can be sold for up to $2,000. Photo by Harriet Salem
In a case that attracted international media attention, in August 2014 the zoo sold two baby lions to a private owner.
Saad al-Jamal, who bought the cubs for $7,000, initially raised the duo in his family's home in a crowded refugee camp, taking them for photo opportunity walks on the beach with his 19-year-old son and even to a soccer match.
"I've always loved lions and studied lions," he told VICE News. "So to own them and have them as part of our family is a dream come true. I am so proud."
All dreams must come to an end, however, and at the beginning of July 2015 Four Paws, an international animal rights charity, intervened and took the two lion cubs to Jordan, a move that was ultimately supported by Hamas, Israel, and even the tearful owners.
"We could see how this guy loved the lion," Amir Khalil, the veterinarian leading that rescue mission told VICE News.
"But these cubs are now teenagers, they have teeth and claws… The people that own these private zoos don't have experience or the financial means to run these kinds of facilities. It's a dangerous situation, somebody can get badly hurt."
Saad al-Jamal's 19-year-old son carries one of the two lion cubs bought by his father from Rafah zoo. The pair was raised in the family home until they became too dangerous to keep around children. Four Paws, an international animal rights charity, has now rescued the cubs and taken them to Jordan. Photo credit by Harriet Salem
Four Paws has now visited Gaza five times offering medical care to animals in Rafah zoo and castrating the male lion. "It's a great success that we have been able to bring these two cubs out of this terrible situation and I'm glad that Mr. Jamal in the end saw sense and allowed the cubs to come to Jordan," said Khalil. "But it's not a solution, overall the situation in Gaza for animals is not getting better, it's getting worse"
In defense of the zoo's actions, Jihad said there was no other choice. "We just couldn't afford to feed two more hungry mouths so rehoming them to someone who could afford food seemed the best option," he told VICE News.
Four Paws is currently working with all the relevant authorities to try and way to improve the lives of the scores of exotic animals still lingering in the strip's three zoos, but says all sides must now take responsibility for the plight of the animals.
"We see that the story of these two little lion cubs united people across the world. Even countries that cannot normally agree on anything — Jordan, Israel, Palestine — agreed on this topic, so we're hoping this will continue to grow into something bigger that can educate people and help all Gaza's animals," added Khalil.
"The lion is the king of the jungle and he needs to be treated like that, not like a pet."
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem
Watch the VICE News documentary, Fallout in Gaza: Six Months On