For sale: Gaza zoo where the zebras were not all they seemed
Israeli blockade leaves animals starving and owners with no choice but to sell up
Monday 08 February 2010
An emaciated lion, a hyperactive camel, and the only "zebra" in Palestine – this unusual assortment of animals could soon be yours. Mahra Land, a ramshackle zoo in Gaza, is now on the market.
The zoo made headlines last year when its owners engineered, not with genetics, but black paint, a pair of "zebras" out of two donkeys. TV reports showed delighted local children patting, slapping and even riding the docile if exotic looking creatures. The donkeys replaced two real zebras that starved to death during Israel's three-week war on the Gaza Strip last year.
But six months after acquiring global stardom, one "zebra" has died, and the owners, no longer able to meet the costs of feeding their menagerie under Israel's illegal economic siege of Gaza, are being forced to sell up.
In their darkened office – electricity cuts are a daily occurrence because Gaza's power plant keeps running out of fuel – Mohammed Berghout and his brother Ahmed, the two young businessmen behind Mahra Land, are still bemused at how they transformed two white mules into respectable copies of beasts that may have roamed the African savannah.
"Ahmed had the idea to paint donkeys" Mohammed says. First they tried ordinary black paint but that didn't work so well, then they mixed human hair dye in a plastic bowl and using masking tape to get the striped effect, applied it to their white coats.
The results were pretty convincing but even more so when it came to helping shed light on the desperation of Gazans under siege and the limited options for its children, many of whom have never been allowed to travel even as far as Israel or the West Bank, and whose entertainment is limited to the beach in summer, an outing to one of four dilapidated zoos or a walk around a British First World War cemetery.
Last year's Israeli air bombardment and ground invasion killed 1,300 Palestinian civilians and reduced much of the territory to rubble. For three weeks bombing and shelling made it too dangerous for Mohammed or Ahmed to reach the zoo to feed their charges. When they eventually did, they found the place intact but many of the animals had starved to death.
Smuggling in replacements via underground tunnels on the Egyptian border would have run to tens of thousands of pounds. But the Berghouts are typical of Gazan resilience and resourcefulness.
The sign at the entrance on the outskirts of Gaza City still beckons "Well Com" in English, but a raw east wind whips across the Strip and there isn't a visitor in sight. The bumper cars have broken down and are gathering dust and Thomas the Tank Engine in the miniature train ride has shunted to a halt opposite an outdoor cafe whose white plastic chairs are deserted.
The animals seem to have stopped bothering, too. Curled up in the corner of his narrow cell, eyes shut, the lion certainly looks defeated. His female companion died of hunger during the war. In another pen there's a household dog, like an overgrown Cairn terrier, barking in an urgent high pitch perhaps because his neighbours include a family of domestic cats.
A few doors down, a fox trots around his cell in agitated circles, his skinny vixen wife and their young offspring look on with glazed expressions from the corner. There's a lone monkey, a gazelle, owls, storks, and some suspiciously inactive fish.
The surviving dye-job zebra looks scrawny on her fragile legs, her head cast down and the black stripes on her back faded to a dirty grey. "We thought it would be more successful, we thought people would love to come here," says Mohammed. "But it is too expensive to feed the animals". Admission costs only 3 shekels (around 60p). But inflation is high in Gaza and feeding a lion alone costs up to £15 a day. In an economic siege that is taking its toll on both the morale and the pockets of Gazans, exotic animals, or even just souped-up donkeys, were always going to be a difficult business model.
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