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An emaciated stuffed lion lies on an exhibit cobbled together from crates and shipping pallet, flies hovering over its mangy coat.
Nearby, a monkey missing limbs is frozen in a mummified gaze; a porcupine’s brittle spines protrude from its lifeless corpse.
The animals are among those exhibited at the Khan Younis zoo in the impoverished Gaza Strip – where zookeepers, to avoid smuggling animals across borders, stuff and embalm those that die and return them to their enclosures.
There is a unique afterlife for animals who die in the dilapidated park, giving visitors the unusual zoo experience of petting wild animals.
But because taxidermy in the largely isolated Palestinian territory is not advanced and expertise and materials are in short supply, the experience can be grim.
Flies swarm around some of the 10 animals that have been embalmed so far. The makeshift cages housing the exhibits — fashioned from fencing salvaged from Jewish settlements that Israel dismantled in 2005 — are littered with empty soda cans and other trash.
The zoo’s 65 live animals, which include ostriches, monkeys, turtles, deer, a llama, a lion and a tiger, don’t fare much better. During a recent visit, children poked chocolate, potato chips and bread through the wire. There’s no zookeeper on the premises. Gaza has no government body that oversees zoos, and medical treatment is done by consulting over the phone with zoo veterinarians in Egypt.
Still, the zoo is one of the few places of entertainment here in Khan Younis, a city of 200,000 people at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. It’s one of five zoos in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated coastal enclave of 1.7million people ruled by Islamic Hamas militants.
Grim: Palestinian schoolchildren watch zoo owner Mohammed Awaida pet a mummified lion at the zoo, where animals are stuffed and placed back in their enclosures after they die
Emaciated: Children enter the enclosure of a stuffed lion, whose ribs are visible from outside the cage
Owner Mohammed Awaida said he opened the ‘South Forest Park’ in 2007, only to lose a number of animals during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas that began in December 2008. During the three-week offensive, launched in response to rocket attacks on Israel, Awaida said he could not reach the zoo, and many animals died of neglect and starvation.
‘The idea to mummify animals started after the Gaza war because a number of animals like the lion, the tiger, monkeys and crocodiles died,’ he said. ‘So we asked around and we learned from the Web how to start.’
Formaldehyde and sawdust provided the basic tools, though Awaida acknowledges he is no expert. A hole in the porcupine’s head is impossible not to notice.
Gaza’s zoos are used to resorting to odd ways to get by amid the territory’s multiple woes. In 2009, a zoo in Gaza City exhibited white donkeys painted with black stripes to look like zebras because it was too expensive to replace two zebras who were neglected during the Israeli offensive.
Since Hamas violently took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has blocked Gaza’s ports, waters and all but one border crossing into Israel. Egypt has also restricted movement through its border crossing, meaning new animals must be smuggled at great expense through an elaborate network of underground tunnels on the Gazan-Egyptian border.
Swarms: Flies buzz around a tiger that lies frozen inside a nearby cage at the Khan Younis zoo
Attraction: The zoo is one of the few places of entertainment in Khan Younis, a city of 200,000 people
Awaida said all of his animals except the birds came through the tunnels.
Preserving dead zoo animals is not new to Palestinians.
In the West Bank city of Qalqilya, zoo veterinarian Sami Khader turned to taxidermy nine years ago when a giraffe named Brownie died during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Khader, who had extensive training and experience in taxidermy from years working in Saudi Arabia, stuffed Brownie and moved him to the zoo’s museum. Today that museum includes a hyena, wolf, birds, camel, raccoons and a tiger.
Fighting with Israel has since subsided and the zoo maintains close connections with the Ramat Gan Safari outside Tel Aviv. But administrators say that Israeli restrictions still make it cumbersome to get new animals.
‘We have more variations and different species as preserved animals than we have living,’ said Amjad al-Haj, the zoo’s financial director. ‘If there will be more restrictions we may end up calling it preserved animals zoo