The world's loneliest zoo

Amid the violence and poverty of the West Bank is a besieged but beautiful animal park, treasured by families on both sides of the divide
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The Independent Online

tuck for something to do in the West Bank, we decided to head for one of its more unlikely attractions: the zoo. Just to get there meant passing through two Israeli army checkpoints, and braving the roads of the West Bank, where cars are frequently ambushed and shot at. It also meant taking your chances in a Palestinian city, where Israeli army incursions are not infrequent and you could come face to face with a Merkava tank in the streets, if you're unlucky. But somehow, amid the carnage and deprivation of the West Bank, the zoo at Qalqilya has managed to struggle on.

At the main checkpoint into Qalqilya, we had to wait for an hour. It was a much shorter wait than the Palestinians queuing up on the dirt road had to endure. Tempers frayed, and a woman Israeli soldier shouted at a Palestinian man trying to get his donkey, loaded with fresh vegetables, through.

In the West Bank, fences and enclosures are more often used to keep people than animals in. Qalqilya is rather hard to get into these days. Israel's controversial "separation fence", ostensibly being built to keep suicide bombers out of Israel, takes the form of a 20m high concrete wall here, that almost encircles the town, complete with watchtowers from which Israeli soldiers can peer down into the town.

But inside lies one of the West Bank's more pleasant surprises. Somehow, amid the squalor and poverty, there is a small but beautiful landscaped park. There is a large swimming pool packed with children. And, amid the trees, in spacious, clean enclosures, a lioness, an ostrich, a family of bears, a pool full of crocodiles. How the zoo managed to survive here is extraordinary. It is down to the hard work and dedication of its resident vet, Dr Sami Khadr, and his team of staff.

But Dr Khadr, a beaming, friendly man, is more than just a vet. One of the zoo's prize exhibits, its giraffe, is not to be found in an enclosure. It has been stuffed, and now stands, covered in cobwebs, in a store room, because the zoo's museum is too small to hold it.

When he is not tending to the animals of Qalqilya zoo, Dr Khadr practises his hobby, taxidermy. When the zoo's animals die, he stuffs them. The giraffe was his biggest project: it is no mean feat to stuff so large an animal.

Which is not to say that Dr Khadr does not care for the animals while they are alive. When we met him, he was enduring the peckings of an enraged ostrich as he tried to tranquillize it so he could stitch its mouth, which it had ripped on the fence of its enclosure. Dr Khadr used to work with an Israeli counterpart, who supplied a lot of the specialist equipment he needed for the zoo. Cut off from Israel by the military closure, Dr Khadr had to improvise. He made his own tranquillizer gun, getting advice from his Israeli colleague over the phone.

"The Arabs and Israelis disagree over many things, but there is no disagreement over animals," Dr Khadr laughs.

But it has not all been plain sailing. The zoo may look as if it has managed to escape the violence all around it, but it has not. The story of the giraffe's death is ample evidence of that. On either side of the zoo lie Palestinian schools. When Israeli incursions were more frequent last year, the boys used to throw stones at the Israeli tanks as they passed. The Israelis responded by shooting them. Sometimes they use rubber-coated steel bullets, which can kill at close range. Sometimes they use live ammunition.

At the sound of gunfire, the giraffe panicked and stampeded. He hit his head on the wall of his enclosure and fell over. Unable to get up, he died - giraffes' blood circulation fails if they fall down. His mate was pregnant at the time. After the shock of the male giraffe's death, she miscarried. It was one of Dr Khadr's lows at the zoo. Others include the time one of the monkeys sliced three of his fingers off on the bars of his cage in panic at the sound of gunfire, and the deaths of the entire collection of zebras - once one of the zoo's main attractions. f

The zebras were tear-gassed to death. The Israeli army fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of stone-throwers who had gathered near the zoo. Tear gas is highly poisonous to zebras.

Worse was when a Palestinian child was shot dead outside the main entrance to the zoo during a major public holiday, when the zoo would usually be packed. "He was playing and he was hit by indiscriminate fire," says Dr Khadr. After that, people from Qalqilya did not want to visit the zoo for some time. Qalqilya is a small town, and not the most obvious place for the West Bank's only zoo. It was the brainchild of a former mayor, a man now despised by most Palestinians because they consider him a collaborator with Israel. "Whatever people say about the mayor, we have to admit he did something for Qalqilya," says Dr Khadr.

Before the Intifada, Palestinians came from all over the West Bank, and even Israeli families came, drawn by the zoo's cheap entrance prices - a fraction of what it costs to visit the Israeli zoo just across the Green Line border.

But now, under military closure, only the residents of Qalqilya and a few nearby villages can visit the zoo. Even from the villages, Palestinians need permission to cross into Qalqilya, and getting it can take days.

Keeping the zoo open has been hard, and at times dangerous, for Dr Khadr. At one point he was called to the zoo urgently to treat a sick f

animal. While he was inside, Israeli tanks entered Qalqilya in an incursion. They surrounded the zoo. Trapped inside and fearing for their lives, Dr Khadr and his colleagues desperately telephoned the Israeli army. They were told an officer promised them he would not shoot if they came out towards where he was, but could not vouch for their safety if they went the wrong way. They managed to get out via a back way, without running into any soldiers.

The day-to-day running of the zoo is fraught with complications too. Getting a new animal delivered means arranging permission to get it through the checkpoint. That can mean transferring the animal from one truck to another at the checkpoint.

The new "fence" going up across the West Bank could spell trouble for the zoo. As long as people could get to it, the zoo's popularity would ensure its survival. But with Qalqilya now surrounded by walls, and the only way in through the Israeli checkpoints, it may be hard for visitors to reach the zoo. That could end with it being unable to make enough money to support itself. For the time being, it is being kept afloat by Qalqilya municipality.

But one thing is clear. Come what may, Dr Khadr will do what he can to keep the zoo going, even if it means braving the tanks again. "When I was a kid, my ambition was to work in a zoo," he smiles - and the thought occurs: Johnny Morris never faced difficulties like these. E