The only zoos in the world where the animals are smuggled through tunnels.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 23 2009 10:03 AM

Donkey Business

The only zebra in Gaza.

Donkey Business. Click image to launch.

GAZA—Something didn't quite look right about the zebra, but it was hard to say exactly what. Of the several ramshackle zoos in Gaza, Marah, located not far from the Bureij refugee camp, is by far the cheeriest: The animals are lively, the enclosures clean, and children gather around the cage of a resting lion.

Then again, the competition is hardly stiff: The zoo in Rafah features dead animals left to rot in their cages; another animal park, situated in a densely populated neighborhood in Bureij, recently shut down amid financial difficulties (and after neighbors complained of the smell). A third, also in Bureij, is so short of funds that a fox is kept in a grocery cart with a board over the top.

Yet Marah, with its broken-down bumper cars and a pit filled with sadly deflated balls, had its own not-quite-right feel—particularly the zebra. Standing near the back of its cage, facing away from the spectators, the animal kept its head tucked down.

"It's really a painted donkey," admitted Mahmud Berghat, the director of Marah, when asked about the creature. Making a fake zebra isn't easy—henna didn't work and wood paint was deemed inhumane, so they finally settled on human hair dye. "We cut its hair short and then painted the stripes," Berghat explained behind the closed door of his office.

It did the trick—if not for zoologists, then at least for legions of Gaza schoolchildren who have never seen a real zebra. When I asked him whether anyone had ever caught the ruse, the director admitted that two sharp university students had IDed the counterfeit creature. "But don't tell anyone," he said. "The children love him."

The idea of a zoo creating a fake zebra sounds preposterous, but this is Gaza, which, after two years of an economic blockade, is renowned for recycling, repurposing, and smuggling just about anything that can't be imported legally. The zoo, in a way, represents all three of these coping mechanisms: a couple of house cats stand in for wild cats; the lion was drugged and smuggled through a tunnel from Egypt; and the zebra, as Berghat joked, was "locally made."

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Zoos in war zones produce an unending cascade of heart-string-tugging stories. Kabul, Afghanistan, had Marjan, the one-eyed lion, who famously survived the Soviet invasion and Taliban rule only to die in his sleep in 2002. The Baghdad zoo, once the largest in the region, was looted during the 2003 invasion.

Likewise, in Gaza, stories of hardship abound. During Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which started in December 2008 and continued through January 2009, Marah's zookeepers couldn't reach the animals. Some were hit by shrapnel; several, including a prized peacock, escaped; and many more died of starvation. The zoo stories are at times apocryphal. The Marah zoo says its lioness was killed by shrapnel; the same story was told about a lioness at the nearby Middle Zoo. (An odd coincidence, or perhaps life is hard for female lions?) But what differentiates Gaza's zoo is how the animals got there. Prior to the Hamas takeover, many of the animals were brought in legally from Egypt and Israel. But since 2007, the most common route animals take to their cages in Gaza is through the underground labyrinth of tunnels that snake from the southern tip of Gaza into Egypt's Sinai.

Though strictly regulated shipments are allowed in through the Israeli border, the majority of what's sold in Gaza's markets—from cement to Converse sneakers—is smuggled through the tunnels. The zoos, like everything else in Gaza, have become caught up in the bizarre economic situation of living in an international no man's land. When the Marah zoo, or just about any zoo in Gaza, needs a new animal, it places an order with a smuggler. Other than price, size is the only limitation—one tunnel owner in Rafah told me the biggest animal that can fit in the tunnels is a cow.

For most Gazans, the tunnels are an economic lifeline, but they are also a conduit for weapons and drugs. During the recent military operations, the tunnels took a beating—Israel dropped earth-penetrating bombs in an attempt to destroy the underground passageways. But many tunnels survived, and smuggling operations quickly resumed.