Blue sky, warm sun. The burbling hum of hundreds of excited children, the pungent musk of animals.
This is the second zoo I’ve been to in Israel. The other is in Haifa. My clearest memory of it is the single honey badger pacing furiously in its small enclosure, swinging its head back and forth, all in an eternal oscillating search for an exit. Oh, and the hobo kittens living with the otters. Then there were the pop songs pumping over speakers, because apparently listening to the sounds of the animals would be much too boring for zoo patrons. Needless to say, I wasn’t overly impressed, and I left feeling guilty about all those trapped creatures.
The Tel Aviv zoo, Ramat Gan Safari, however, provided a far happier vista. It boasts the largest collection of animals in the Middle East, a Noah’s ark in the midst of an urban sea.
To enter the zoo, we first drove through an expansive park where herds of African savannah animals roam–zebras, antelopes, elands, wildebeest, scimitar horned oryx, hippos, and rhinos, among others, including the greedy ostriches that poked their bald heads toward the drivers’ windows of the passing cars. It was pretty neat to watch a whole herd of hippopotami nap standing up like boulders in the sun.
The most impressive scene was, of course, the lions, which played, stalking and ambushing each other, even leaping over one another, in an exhilarating game of big cat tag.
Within the zoo, the most striking exhibit was Israeli family life. The paths were flooded with children and their parents to the point that I was concerned about moving too fast for fear of accidentally trampling a toddler. Then there were the frequent stroller traffic jams. I felt a bit out of place without a child, or at least a stroller, in tow.
Besides the impressive collection of homo sapiens cubs, there were the monkeys–so many primates! Tamarins, baboons, capuchins, orangutans, gorillas, lemurs, colobus, monkey A, monkey B, monkey see, monkey do… One orangutan sat still on the edge of his enclosure’s moat with a hand outstretched as if waiting for a long overdue gift. On the whole, they were better behaved than the children.
It was an apt time for me to visit a zoo, having finally finished an excellent book my mom recommended to me years ago called The Zookeeper’s Wife. The prose in this vividly written history was so delicious, I wanted to slurp it up. The story, on the other hand, is one of sorrow and struggle, as it follows the true story of a zookeeping couple in Warsaw through World War II as they survive the destruction of their city at the hands of the Nazis and help to hide Jews on the grounds of their zoo. I shan’t say more, because you should really just read it yourself, but Diane Ackermann’s painstaking research introduced me to the complex politics of zoos. For instance, even this Ramat Gan Safari has some involvement in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. After a Palestinian zoo in the West Bank, Kalkilya Zoo, lost three of its zebras to violence, Safari gave it several animals in a gesture of peacemaking. Animals are not spared in war, but their return can, it seems, help to rejuvenate a nation.