“Yes, I remember the caged animals and lions… They used to scare me.” This is what Majed, a 10 year old boy, recalls about the zoo which he visited before the war started in Taiz, and the rest of the country, in 2014. Five years ago Majed visited the zoo with his parents, siblings and cousins. They spent around three hours looking at animals and feeding them, especially the monkeys, who make up the majority of inhabitants in this zoo. Majed remembers many details about his visit; in particular he recalls the way one zookeeper used to persuade lions to roar at the demand of visitors, who stood close by to take pictures with them.
Majed’s mother said she always used to take the kids there, especially those who were 10 years old or younger, so they could look at the animals up close and identify them. She regarded it as an educational excursion, where she would teach them animal names, and how to differentiate between domesticated animals and predators.
During our interview she went silent and started pondering, her expression suddenly gloomy, and I enquired about her thoughts. She replied, “I remembered Ammar, Majed’s cousin who visited the zoo with us five years ago. He was killed by a Houthi sniper in 2016”. Abruptly, the big smile on Majed’s face evaporated, and his expression became sad. He explained how he used to consider Ammar his brother, and that he would never visit the zoo again.
Sala, who’s in her 20s, reminiscences about how she used to feel very happy when visiting Taiz Zoo because it allowed her to take photos of animals up close; her last visit was in 2013. Majed and Sala are lucky because they were able to visit the zoo before the war commenced in March 2015. Children have not been able to visit the zoo or any other park as the situation in Taiz has considerably deteriorated, affecting everything and everyone including the zoo, which is located in al-Hawban, an area east of the city, now under Houthi control.
When the war started, the zoo’s financial allocations, which mostly came from the local municipality’s fund for cleanness and improvement, were suspended. The situation for the animals started deteriorating very dramatically, especially once the city was under siege, making it very difficult for the more than 60 employees to reach the zoo and tend to them. The zoo was eventually closed and abandoned, mirroring the situation Taiz was experiencing. And so, the animals’ suffering continued, with the Houthis rejecting attempts to save the animals, despite repeated appeals.
Most of the city experienced shelling, including al-Hawban, and the animals remained caged, likely to die. It didn’t stop there: the lack of funding meant food shortages and the spread of diseases among the animals. People shared pictures of animals that had starved to death or died of diseases, and in time these animals were consumed by others; the rest awaited their death. Despite the war, many tried to help, and some animals were transferred to Sana’a, while some people provided food, but it was still insufficient. The situation is still deteriorating for the animals.
The zoo’s manager, Shawki al-Hajj, told media outlets that disease and starvation killed 11 lions, and 6 out of 31 rare Arabian tigers; additionally, the zoo used to host 18 rare Arabian onyx, and of the 3 types only 5 are still alive. Many diseases have spread among the animals, and insects have also infected the monkeys; it has become harder to rid them of insects due to the lack of vaccines and medicines.
In my quest to find out more about the current state of the zoo, I spent a long time enquiring about whether the zoo is open to visitors. This question was always met with astonishment, as people stopped thinking about visiting parks and zoos, being preoccupied by the war. It’s particularly difficult for people living in government areas to visit the zoo, given the difficulties of a journey which could take up to several hours, as the siege rendered many roads inaccessible.
After several days we were able to verify that the zoo is open. This was confirmed by Amani Ali, who lives in al-Hawban and went to visit the zoo; she said that it was only reopened recently. Amani said that she and her husband are not considering going again due the length of time it took to reach the zoo. It was also difficult to find since there is only one sign which reads ‘Zoo’, but there are no directions to the entrance. Amani didn’t expect to find anyone as she walked through the eerie surroundings, now treeless, but she found some families and children, which reassured her.
Amani was surprised when she saw the animals: “Their appearance hurt me, because their food portions are very small and dirty, and the drinking water in front of them was also very dirty. The entire enclosure was filthy. The animals looked thin, ducks were swimming in dirty water, and the lions had rashes.” The effects of war were also apparent; there are shell holes in one of the lion enclosures. Houthis are overseeing the zoo now; it’s located within their jurisdiction. The zoo is considered one of the biggest parks in Yemen, and houses many endangered species, like Arabian tigers that thrived there and were relocated from many other zoos around the world.
In the past, Yemenis from outside Taiz often drove from neighboring cities to spend weekends and holidays in Taiz with one main goal in mind: to visit Taiz Zoo. On those weekends and holidays, the lines at the entrance were very long, and one would wait for 20 minutes to enter the zoo. “I still hope that the zoo one day will return like it once used to be, a place for kids to marvel at the beauty of animals, run and play with one another on the green grass, with family picnics, music and laughter. It must prosper again and our children must experience the zoo like we once did”, says Majed’s mother.