They Braved a War-Torn Region to Rescue 47 Animals From the 'Zoo of Sorrow'

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The team went cage to cage liberating the animals. Four Paws U.S.

It didn't look good for a team of rescue workers trying to make their way to the Gaza Strip.

Heightened political tensions, the ever-present threat of violence and one closed border after another seemed to stymie them at every turn.

In fact, their first attempt to get through failed completely.

But this team comprised of veterinarians and wildlife experts wouldn't be turned away.

Lives depended on it.

They had set their sights on a dilapidated zoo — an unlikely attraction in the war-torn region — where dozens of animals languished, casualties of a seemingly endless conflict.

The zoo may be known locally as Rafah Zoo, but many others know it by a different name: The Zoo of Sorrows. Hope doesn't live in those rusty cages. Just listless lions, monkeys, peacocks and porcupines — a menagerie of misery.

A lion and cubs in enclosure.
Last month, several cubs froze to death at the zoo because they didn't have proper shelter. Four Paws U.S.

Earlier this year, four lion cubs froze to death. A monkey was also killed. And no one knows how exactly a porcupine died. In one particularly grisly case, to ensure a young lioness would safely interact with children, she was de-clawed with garden shears.

That's in addition to the intermittent military attacks that have killed and maimed many more animals over the last decade or so.

A lion at the Rafah Zoo in Gaza.
The zoo owner claims the military blockade was hurting the animals. Four Paws U.S.

It was, in fact, the facility's owner, Fathy Jomaa, who reached out to Four Paws about giving up the animals.

"It is a tough decision, I feel like I am losing my family," Jomaa told Reuters. "I lived with some of those animals for 20 years."

But blockades by Israeli and Egyptian forces had starved the zoo of vital resources, he explained. It was time to let them go.

"I hope they find a better place to live."

But earlier this week, hope finally visited the Zoo of Sorrows. On their second attempt, after days of negotiating with the zoo to transfer its animals, the Four Paws teams reached the site.

And they opened those creaking cages.

A lion on a rooftop at the Rafah Zoo.
Rounding up the animals proved no easy task. Four Paws U.S.

"This mission was one of the most nerve-recking for our team," Robert Ware, executive director of Four Paws U.S., noted in a press release. "After the team's first attempt to rescue the animals was thwarted due to border closures and increased tensions in the region, we were all anxiously awaiting to see what would unfold during the second attempt. We are so thankful to our team and supporters."

On April 6, all of the animals were loaded onto transport crates. But getting into the Gaza Strip, even as a small team sanctioned by local authorities was one thing. But getting out of there with 47 animals in tow was quite another. The journey to Jordan, some 186 miles away, proved even more arduous.

A lion being removed from a transport vehicle.
At the Israeli border, the animals had to switch vehicles. Four Paws U.S.

At the Erez border that crossed into Israel, the transport vehicles had to be changed. That meant unloading and re-loadiing all the animals. Israeli soldiers would also escort the caravan for the rest of the trek to Jordan.

A veterinarian treats a cat.
Veterinarians made sure every animal received medical treatment. Four Paws U.S.

They reached their destination late at night — an animal sanctuary about an hour from Amman, the Jordanian capital. That's where the animals were finally released into generous enclosures, stretching their legs and being among their own kind. Most will likely remain there, never worrying about food and comfort and care again.

Except for two older lions. They're heading to South Africa, where Four Paws has established its own sanctuary called Lionsrock.

Two lions in a cage.
A couple of older lions are bound for a sanctuary in South Africa. Four Paws U.S.

But no matter where they end up, all of these animals will know something that has eluded them all their lives. Peace.

"We are looking forward to when these lions will take their first steps onto grass in South Africa," Ware noted. "That will be the very best ending for these poor animals. It will be the very best ending for such an international group effort as well."