In Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, lives the worst zoo in the world — the “South Forest Park,” owned and operated (in the loosest term of the word) by Mohammed Awaida, whose aspirations for an animal enclosure fall far short of anything resembling what we are used to in the U.S.
Awaida created the zoo in 2007, but then lost most of his animals during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas that began in December 2008. During the three-week offensive, many animals died of neglect and starvation, because neither he nor other caretakers could reach the zoo. It was a scene of death that was repeated in the summer of 2014, when fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants resumed.
But the entrepreneurial Awaida had the gruesome idea to preserve the dead creatures, and keep them on display alongside the still-living ones. He learned taxidermy via the Internet, and with the help of his brothers — who helped scoop out innards — packed the emptied carcasses with sawdust, sewed them back up, and pumped in a formaldehyde-like mixture through a tube inserted into the mouth to finish his mummy zoo.
The zoo does have 65 live animals — ostriches, monkeys, turtles, deer, a llama, a lion and a tiger — who fare as well as you’d expect while living in a second-rate zoo in the impoverished Gaza Strip. There is no zookeeper on the premises, visitors are free to feed the animals anything that they can fit through the bars of the cages, and all medical treatment is done by phone-consultations with veterinarians in Egypt (maybe that’s where the mummy idea came from).
Adding to the intrigue of the zoo is the fact that all the animals (except for the birds) have been smuggled to the Gaza strip through underground tunnels at the Egyptian border at incredible expense. According to Awaida, bringing in the lion cost $30,000, and the tiger, over $100,000. And although Awaida is happy to share his animals, he is tight-lipped about how he affords to pay for them.
Still, the zoo is actually a bright spot in Khan Younis, a city of 200,000 people at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. Awaida hopes that the zoo brings joy to the many children of the city, and wants it to give them hope that they may one day live their lives without the constant fear of war.
Samir Amer, 14, visited the zoo and took pictures of the animals with his mobile phone.
“I have been to this place before years ago but this is my first time seeing mummified animals,” he said. “They look like they are asleep. I will print out the pictures of me standing next to the lion and put it on my wall. It will be fun to show it to my younger brothers,” he said.