The Zoo of the Surreal and Sad

(This story originally ran in The Bear Deluxe Magazine [issue #32, 2011] under the title “Inside the Palestinian Zoo”)

There’s a bad joke that circles around Palestine’s plentiful ex-pat community. Palestinians are great, they say, but they need to get out more. It’s an awful thing to mention, considering that most of Palestine’s 4 million-plus people are literally walled into the West Bank and Gaza, and are prevented from traveling by the whims of the Israeli government and a dismal economy. Palestinians are by and large a people trapped, caged if you will. Which is one reason why I was so intrigued when I heard about The West Bank’s only zoo, and the horrific and tragic stories that surround it.

February 11th was the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. After 30 years of American-backed dictatorial rule, the uprising of the Egyptian people was successful. They ousted the prick. I was living in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, on a main street close to the Church of the Nativity, where people say Jesus was born.

That night, after hours of watching Al-Jazeera English cover the celebrations in Tahrir Square, I drove through a nearby checkpoint used primarily by Israelis settlers, past bulletproof-vest-wearing teenage soldiers holding automatic rifles, and into Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. I was having dinner with a French couple— he works for the UN, she leads one of countless NGOs that work to give every Palestinian kid a kite, or some world-saving phenomenon like that. The dinner conversation began and ended with Egypt, and the truly amazing events we had all been watching unfold for the last few weeks. After dinner, the conversation turned from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia to Palestine, and what it might take to see an Egypt-like uprising here. Not the right time, was the sentiment. People are still rebuilding from the Second Intifada and folks seem to want to hold on to what little comfort they’ve rebuilt for themselves. Still, we agreed, there is always hope if you talk to the right people.

The wine flowed and the conversation continued to spiral around Palestine and its Kafkaesque complexities. And then something caught my ear. UN guy said he’d heard of a zoo in the northern West Bank that was so pressed for animals, they stuffed the dead ones and kept them on display. Not only that, my French friend said, but the town of Qalqilya, where the zoo was supposedly located, was completely surrounded by Israel’s separation wall. Wait, I said. The city itself is caged? Like a zoo? And inside this city is a zoo full of taxidermy animals? It’s a zoo within a zoo? My reporter mind fizzed and popped. I imagined a place with only taxidermy stuffed animals, but still in the cages, like a conventional zoo. I needed to find out what the hell was going on with the place.

Driving into Qalqilya is itself a surreal experience. I discovered that not only is Qalqilya surrounded by Israel’s immense separation barrier, but so is the road that leads in and out of the city, turning the Qalqilya into a kind of lollypop on a stick, with walls and high-security fences on all sides. Approaching the city feels like driving into a trap, and it’s not the easiest place to get to. The journey involved fourteen U-turns, an overheated engine and a kind stranger rewiring our car battery with wires cut from a printer cord, but after many hot hours we finally made it to the zoo.

The road to Qalqilya.

Something was seriously wrong throughout the zoo, but it was difficult to put my finger on it. The cages were small, the animals either listless or demented. The animals that weren’t lying completely still were pacing, pacing. Like animals in confinement are prone to do. A jungle cat in solitary confinement raced six steps to the back of his cage, turned and came back, turned and went, over and over without stopping. He didn’t hesitate when we approached, he didn’t even notice. His mind had turned to jelly. A group of small monkeys gnawed at something melted to the bars of their cage. What is that? I asked two zoo employees who were loitering nearby, watching.

“Chocolate,” they smiled.

The two big brown bears seem despondent, or maybe just hot. They lie on the concrete, separated by a fence. When one shifts, his claws scrape the pavement, an unnatural sound. The badgers run their own invisible courses without stopping, as though they went insane ages ago, and it’s just muscle memory at this point. I wonder, do they go to sleep, or just periodically collapse from exhaustion? The aisle of baboon cages is eerily silent, all of them rapidly moving, wearing their own unique patterns in the concrete floor. That is until some young men begin throwing snack food to one. This causes the other baboons to begin shrieking and hurling themselves against their bars, out of psychotic jealousy I suppose. As I watched the young men throw food to the baboons, and listened to the ear-splitting shrieks, I realized what was wrong not just with this zoo, but with all zoos. These weren’t baboons I was looking at. Real baboons have freedom and choice. Real baboons have land and limitless trees and plants to interact with. Real baboons have social bonding and emotions. Real baboon pose danger if one approaches them without regard for their feelings. These weren’t real baboons in these cages. These were manmade baboon impersonators. Poorly treated slave labor. They offered very little in the way of experiential learning, other than to say: look at the cruelty of civilization. I couldn’t watch anymore, I had to move on.

I approached the Qalqilya Zoo knowing full well that I’m no fan of zoos and aquariums. I grew up going to them, and I’ll take my sister’s kids, but I always leave feeling tainted. Everything about zoos seems fundamentally sick and wrong to me. I want to believe that zoos educate us and make the world better, but it’s just not true. The premise that zoos instruct people about how to better preserve animal habitats, or instill in people a respect for wild animals has been shot full of holes by researchers and philosophers alike. A zoo may provide an informational blurb in front of an animal cages, but in no way does it reason that if one were to read the plaque, that it would inspire any sort of connection or respect for wild animals or their diminishing habitats. Zoos are entertainment and little else, and the entertainment comes at a great cost to the trapped animals. Zoos are the ultimate representation of man’s perceived dominance over the natural world, rather than our connection to it. I tried to open my mind though, as I met Saed Khater, the director of the Qalqilya Zoo.

photo: Timothy J. Faust

Khader is a dapper-looking architect in his early forties who came to his position at the zoo two months prior via a position in the Qalqilya Municipality. After the usual pleasantries he immediately walked me over to a taxidermy giraffe. It was true. They did stuff their dead animals. This was no professional-grade taxidermy though, this was something different. The skin was dirty, matted, and in many places missing. They eyes looked like ovals of phosphorescent fabric, and the mouth looked as though it wasn’t able to be easily reached during the stuffing process. It was more like a snout; it hadn’t been filled-out to look like the normal mouth of a giraffe. It was empty almost, kind of long and narrow.

Khader told me about the zoo and reminded me that this place is the only option Palestinians have for this kind of entertainment. In the Spring, he said, primary school classes from all over the West Bank come here on field trips. From March to May, he said, 3,000 students visit per day. I tried to take it in as Khader gave me the full rundown.

The Qalqilya Zoo was founded in the ’80s and, ever since has served as the only zoo in the Palestinian-controlled territories. There is a large San Diego-style zoo in Israel, near Jerusalem, but most Palestinians are not allowed through the wall into Israel, meaning Qalqilya is the only game in town. With that kind of monopoly you might think the place is booming, but you’d be wrong. This is Palestine remember. Decades of military occupation means that little here makes sense, and behind seemigly everything hides a tragic story.

The Qalqilya Zoo is no exception. In the early 2000s, during the Second Intifada, the zoo went through hell. The Israeli military kept people from visiting, and many animals died from being in such close proximity to human conflict. Zebras suffocated from tear gas inhalation. There was shooting inside the zoo. A giraffe broke his neck after being spooked, and his pregnant partner miscarried, then later died as well. The city of Qalqilya has had a rough decade while being walled-off from the rest of Palestine, and the zoo hasn’t been spared. The giraffe we stood under was a stark reminder of that.

“Qalqilya is surrounded by the separation wall, does that pose any unique problems for the zoo?” I asked.

“Of course,” Khader said. “It creates problems first of all just to preserve the animals and keep them alive. And also to have medicine and suitable food for them. Since the beginning of the intifada, there has not been permission for us to import any new animals.” Attendance has also dropped off since the wall was built, he said, because Palestinians living inside Israel can no longer easily make the journey.

Photo: Timothy J. Faust

Khader walked me through the three different interactive museums the zoo has set up — one centering on geology, one on agriculture, and one on animals. This last one is where the stuffed animals are displayed. Near the entrance stand two other stuffed giraffes, one much smaller than the others: the one that had been miscarried. Almost all of the animals look “off,” for lack of a better word. The lion’s eyes stare in different directions, his mouth oddly stretched into some sort of ferocious smile. Below him lies a zebra, one of the ones that died from tear gas. The whole place is eerie, but one can hardly blame the people behind the taxidermy, it’s an honest effort to a keep the zoo going as animals die and replacements are hard to find. To hear Khader tell it, he and the rest of his staff honestly want to offer young people an opportunity to learn. The entire Middle East region is in flux, and for 60 years Palestinians have been doing the best they can against increasingly difficult odds. The zoo’s troubles didn’t end with the intifada, Khader explained, they just changed from direct threats of violence to bureaucracy and injustice.

Most of the troubles the zoo faces now are financial. Zoo admission is less than $2 U.S. for adults, and half that for kids, so the zoo is struggling to grow. To make matters worse, Khader said, because Israel is an occupying force, the zoo must deal with Israeli counterparts in order to get new animals, and it has been cheated. Khader said the two giraffes that died in the intifada were part of a deal in which his zoo paid for four giraffes, but received only two, with an Israeli zoo keeping the others, free of charge. According to Khader, the Israelis mistakenly view his zoo as competition, and have therefore kept the Qalqilya Zoo from joining an international organization that would allow the zoo to get it’s own animals directly.

“Do the Israelis in charge make it hard for you to get the membership you need just to make things difficult for you, or is it more complicated than that?” I asked, wondering if animal living conditions have any bearing on a zoo’s ability to join.

“It’s occupation on the citizen’s life,” he said. “They try to create harder conditions for those of us living under occupation. They don’t care if we bring animals or not, but they want to make it harder for us.”

Despite the hardships, the zoo is expanding, but in not in conventional ways. They are building a 3D movie theater and playgrounds, turning the zoo into more of a community center. There are slides painted to look like the Palestinian flag, complete with a large sign boasting the playground as a gift of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There are food cart vendors and patios for people to eat and like most public places, the smell of nargilla smoke hangs in the air. There is a sign above the patio saying the area is lit by solar energy. Not bad. They are trying to deal with the lack of animals, Khader tells me, by diversifying the recreational facilities.

photo: Timothy J. Faust

We shook hands again and Khader left us to roam the zoo. My mind was spinning from the energy of animal misery and human sincerity. A strange place, this zoo within a surrounded city. In many ways Qalqilya Zoo is a decent metaphor for Palestine as a whole. The hardships continue to create a place that is unique and in many ways peculiar, but within these hardships are people working hard for a sense of normalcy.

[Mateo Hoke spent more than four years researching and co-editing Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, a book of intimate oral histories from the West Bank and Gaza. Twitter: @mateohoke.]