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A Gaza zoo owner had to flee amid war... leaving some animals behind

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Parrots, primates and other zoo animals have been evacuated from a combat zone in Gaza. The Palestinian zoo owner fled Israel's offensive in the city of Rafah and took many animals with him to shelter elsewhere in Gaza, but he left some animals behind, where Israel is now fighting what it calls Hamas' last bastion. It's a story that touches on the delicate politics of zoos in Gaza, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The owner of the Rafah Zoo, Fathi Jumaa, escaped Rafah along with nearly a million Palestinians who fled last month. He took many of his animals with him to Khan Younis, a city already pummeled in the war.

FATHI JUMAA: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He told NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, that he was in a rush to escape the Israeli offensive in Rafah and didn't have enough cages to evacuate every animal. So he released dogs, eagles and exotic birds to the wild and left behind 12 turtles. What worries him are the three lions he also left behind in their cages.

JUMAA: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He said, if we don't get them out within a week or 10 days, they'll die because they don't have food or water. When the war started, he appealed to an animal welfare group in Vienna called Four Paws. Veterinarian Amir Khalil runs the group's animal rescue missions. And he's evacuated animals from Gaza several times before because conflict and economic hardship made it difficult to care for animals there. After a 2014 war, he evacuated one Gaza zoo that got hit.

AMIR KHALIL: The zoo was destroyed, and it was mainly three lions and some birds, which was with broken wings, Ostrich. And we evacuated the lion because it was dangerous, not only for the animal to stay, but also for the civilian who are surrounding the zoo.

ESTRIN: His last trip to Gaza was five years ago, actually, to save Fathi Jumaa's animals, the same zoo owner who is now calling for help saving his lions. This is where the story becomes delicate.

KHALIL: He was not able to run the zoo. He was not able to care for the animal. He asked for international help. We invested him two times. We see the condition of the animal was very bad.

ESTRIN: At the time, he said Jumaa had chopped off a lioness's claws with garden shears and was unable to care properly for zoo animals. The animal welfare group evacuated his animals, reimbursed him for all his upkeep and had him sign an agreement not to reopen the Rafah zoo. Then he did a few months later.

KHALIL: He re-opened the zoo, bought new animals, like a business. It is very sad, whatever - what's going on. We are not judging a person, but it was a deal he will not open the zoo due to the current situation or political situation in Gaza in general.

ESTRIN: Jumaa tells NPR he reopened the Rafah zoo to take in animals from owners in Gaza who were going to otherwise kill them. In this war, he lost three lion cubs, five monkeys and nine squirrels. He contacted the animal welfare group asking for help evacuating his animals and himself from Gaza. The group told him it wouldn't buy his animals but could try to save them if he brought them near the border, but he didn't.

KHALIL: We warned him, if he's not able to bring the animal to the border, he might face this situation, what he faced currently.

ESTRIN: Now three caged lions are in the combat zone of Rafah. Their fate is unknown. The Israeli military did not respond to our question whether soldiers found them. Of course, another question is, why focus on animals when it's humans who are suffering? Khalil the vet says helping animals is a step toward kindness. He's seen Hamas and Israel give animals passage.

KHALIL: I mean, I witnessed this before when we evacuate animal. I mean, I was so proud to see animal can open borders, can build the bridges between the enemies. Everyone can put his weapon and to make a selfie with the lion or with a tiger. So they would be proud to be a part of saving animal, and I think this will be very kind for all of us if we are able to do this and to show minimum what we can do for humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ESTRIN: When Jumaa escaped to Khan Younis last month, he brought with him some lions, baboons, parrots and other animals. Jumaa sleeps in a tent near their cages and hangs clothes to dry on the bars. The animals are not doing well. A baby monkey recently died. Animal feed is hard to come by now. He's sharing his own canned food, humanitarian aid, with the animals.

JUMAA: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says, "there's no alternative. We share what we have to keep the animals alive." Daniel Estrin, NPR News Tel Aviv, with producer Anas Baba in Khan Younis, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.