Tuesday, March 09, 2021

In Qalqilya, local zoo is ready for the international spotlight

By Lili Martinez - June 23, 2016
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [Qalqylia] [photography] [Animals] [Zoo]

One might think there’s nothing much to do in Qalqilya, a West Bank city of around 45,000 tucked on a hillside near the border with Israel. Qalqilya is mostly known for being surrounded on all sides by the occupation wall, with only one crowded checkpoint left for residents to enter and exit the city. But Qalqilya has another claim to fame: its live-animal zoo, taxidermy museum and educational center, run by Dr. Sami Khader, known as “Dr. Sami,” a jack-of-all-trades veterinarian who both cares for the animals and bears the unfortunate burden of stuffing them when they pass away.


Dr. Sami cares for his baby monkey Lauza, whom he adopted after she imprinted on him after only one day. [Emma Chamblard]


News outlets from Japan to New York have come to visit Dr. Sami’s odd museum of living and dead animals and to chronicle the story of his “apolitical” zoo and family fun park lying on the edge of a struggling and oft-besieged city. They all mention how he got his start in taxidermy during the Second Intifada, which began in 2000. As Israeli soldiers stormed a nearby school, they detoured into the zoo, shooting randomly. Rudy, the zoo’s prize giraffe, struck his head on a metal beam in panic and eventually died of the blow. His partner, Brownie, and her unborn baby giraffe succumbed weeks later to a mixture of grief and potent Israeli tear gas. Dr. Sami couldn’t bear to let the bodies go to waste, so he preserved them and began his self-taught career in taxidermy.


The head of a one-day old baby giraffe, possibly Brownie's baby. [Emma Chamblard] 


Dr. Sami’s love for animals is clear. Entering the office, Lauza, his young monkey, surprises us with shrieks and babbles, leaping onto a curtain to hang, suspicious, staring at my colleagues’ cameras and equipment. “She’s shy, and she’s afraid of you!” Dr. Sami explains in English. He attempts to coax her from her hiding place, but she isn’t convinced. “She was with me for 24 hours [when she was born],” he tells us. “I took her to my house, my clinic, everywhere, and now she thinks I’m her mother.” His daughter plays with her at home and thinks of her as a friend. “They are very close friends, and my daughter protects her,” he adds.


Between feeding Lauza and answering calls from zoo staff, Dr. Sami explains the connection between his early career as a veterinarian and his second vocation, taxidermy. “When I lose an animal I don’t like to throw it out, so I fix it and keep it in the museum,” he told us. “The museum completes the zoo. There are animals there which are not available in the zoo that you can see in the museum.”


A morbid menagerie scene in the taxidermy museum displays Dr. Sami's skills. [Emma Chamblard]


The Palestinian ecology and geology museums are more conventional, but whimsical touches can be found. In Palestinian ecology, educational posters dot the walls and an old iron plow sits in the middle of the room in front of a plaster model of a well. The geology museum boasts a plaster T.Rex — its mouth and larger-than-life teeth illuminated orange as if on fire — and a model spaceship poised to take flight with red-yellow light below it mimicking flames. Dr. Sami conceptualized and created all the plaster models himself.


These days, Dr. Sami is thinking of the future, and dreaming of ways to improve his zoo and make it more accessible and informative for the approximately 130,000 children who visit each year. They come from all over the West Bank and some from across the border in Israel — although these visitors are usually Palestinian citizens of Israel. Jewish Israeli schools “are afraid,” he explains. “So we cannot force them to come.”


The empty fun fair at the Qalqilya Zoo on a hot Ramadan day [Emma Chamblard]


One change Dr. Sami hopes to make is to advance his zoo to the international stage. The Qalqilya Zoo is in the process of joining the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). With this new membership will come stricter rules and guidelines the zoo must abide by, and Dr. Sami is excited to get started with improvements, including a new “Master Plan” for the zoo drawn up by Dutch zoo planner Erik van Vleit. The plan divides the zoo into new geographical zones such as “South Asia,” “African Savannah” and “Rainforests of South America.” New space for animals will be added where a school bus parking lot currently sits in order to accommodate the expansion.

This playful ring-tailed lemur shows off his grooming habits [Emma Chamblard]

“To be a real zoo and a good zoo, there are a lot of things to do. We are doing our best, but we aren’t moving very fast yet,” Dr. Sami explained. “If you become a partner to European zoos, you should change.”

Change doesn’t always come easily to small towns, and Dr. Sami says it was initially difficult to convince residents of Qalqilya of the importance and necessity of his zoo. But, since the zoo is the only one in the West Bank, its novelty brings many visitors every year. In addition, the space offers important services to residents: a veterinary clinic for household pets, the Palestinian Wildlife Medical Center, which treats wild animals, and, of course, the animals (live and stuffed) and fun fair.


A curious hippo displays his intimidating teeth to passersby. [Emma Chamblard]

As one hot Ramadan day drew to a close, families began trickling into the zoo. Girls raced to the swingset and children pointed excitedly at the hooting baboons and the yawning mouth of the intimidating hippopotamus as he enjoyed his bath at one end of a zookeeper’s hose. The shaded walkways and brightly painted railings provided a welcome respite from the summer heat. In the most unexpected place, in a town encircled by walls, for the zoo and its animals, life goes on.

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