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."
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.
"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."