Palestinian tourist infrastructure is minimal, as is the number of international tourists aside from pilgrims and the 'conflict tourists' who break their holidays in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for a day trip to see the 'other side'. Those who do visit the West Bank rarely venture away from Bethlehem or Ramallah. But encircled by the Apartheid Wall, an hour or so north of Ramallah, the small town of Qalqilya hosts the West Bank's only zoo. Far from the conventional modern safari parks of Europe or the US, and despite its initial rather shabby appearance, for those willing to scratch the surface and uncover it's stories Qalqilya Zoo is a unique experience.
Until the Second Intifada, the zoo was a popular attraction for families keen to see giraffes, zebras, hippopotamuses and other assorted creatures that they had previously only seen in books. By 2002, with Qalqilya under daily Israeli attack, the zoo's resident veterinarian Dr. Sami Khader felt compelled to add a new string to the bow of his already overloaded workload. As tear gas and Israeli bullets filled the town's streets, they also began to spill over in to the zoo's compound. One night, as Israeli soldiers entered the zoo whilst shooting, animals panicked and 'Rudy' the prized male giraffe hit his head against an iron bar and fell. Rudy soon died of a stroke due to a build up of blood pressure caused by the accident. Rudy's partner, 'Brownie', fell in to a deep depression after seeing her dead mate and miscarried the baby she was carrying. When tear gas again filled the zoo's air, Brownie suffocated and died. It was at this stage that Dr. Sami decided to become a taxidermist:
'I spent most of my time here during and just after the intifada working on taxidermy. The first giraffe took me 6 months alone. Nothing is wasted here and this is what we have, we need to preserve everything so that people can learn about animals'.
Today, the few visitors who do reach the zoo can see an array of live animals and also visit Dr. Sami's other 'attractions' including the museum of stuffed animals. Alongside the giraffes are a zebra, jungle cat and others that died during the intifada, as well as various animals that succumbed to natural causes.
This rather macabre collection does not dominate the zoo's current life however. In more recent years Dr. Sami has also established an animal hospital, and local people often bring him injured animals to treat. His belief is that the educational role that the zoo can provide for Palestinian children is paramount, and he is full of big ideas:
"We care for injured animals, preserve dead animals, look after live animals and I want to create so much more for the children. Most of my time now is spent developing educational opportunities and working with groups of school children, helping them to learn more about wildlife. I want to create an earthquake simulator and put together a whale skeleton that people can walk inside, but all this takes time, space and money."
Being established in 1986 – before the Oslo Accords – the zoo was built whilst Qalqilya was under full Israeli civil and military control. Dr. Sami was once asked by an Israeli zoologist if the animals were owned by Israel or Palestine. He answered metaphorically:
"Animals don't need borders…"
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.