"Before the war, you could bring anything through the tunnels," explained Mahmud Berghat's father, Ahmed, the owner of the Marah zoo. "You just had to get it to the border." But now clashes with Egyptian security forces have grown worse, and many tunnels are still damaged and out of operation, so prices have gone up.
The painted zebra is also a product of the tunnel economics: The zoo had requested a quote for a zebra and found it would cost $30,000 to buy the animal and bring it through the tunnels—well beyond its budget—so Berghat enlisted the donkey instead.
But financial difficulties and lack of expertise, as much as war, are at the heart of the zoos' problems. At several zoos, the employees said they had no idea what to feed the animals, and found themselves searching the Web for information abut the diets of exotic snakes and tropical birds. Even when the diet is simple, it may be expensive. "It costs 100 shekels [$25] a day to feed him," said Shadi Nassir, the caretaker for the now-closed Middle Zoo, pointing to the emaciated lion that sat listless in its cage.
"Would you like to buy him?" Nassir offered. "We're selling him for $700."
But the zoos, whatever their shortcomings, provide a rare form of entertainment in a congested strip of land that affords few other diversions. "This is the only public place in the area where people can relax outside and the children can play," said Rami Washah, the director of an animal park in Bureij.
At Marah, which combines a zoo and an amusement park, the admission ticket is three shekels per person—less than a dollar—and the zoo gives discounts to groups of students. Sometimes families come and find they can't afford the admission. "We're embarrassed to say no, so we let them in," Ahmed Berghat says.
But it's not all bad news. The Marah zoo, which features an assortment of animals, from owls to monkeys, was busy that day. And director Berghat had a wish list of animals he wanted to buy: a llama, a gazelle, and a mountain wolf.
"What we really want is an elephant," he said. "But a small one, so it can fit in the tunnels."