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'Imagine living and dying in such a small space': Zoo workers in Yemen are struggling to feed starving animals

By Sudarsan Raghavan

June 10, 2016 at 4:30 AM

In Taiz Zoo, lions and rare Arabian leopards are in cages, casualties of the war. Food and medicine are running out, and animal activists fear that the animals could become ill or die. Already, 12 lions and six leopards have died in the zoo. (Photo by Sudarsan Raghavan/ The Washington Post)

TAIZ, Yemen — Add lions and endangered Arabian leopards to the casualties of Yemen's civil war. To see the impact, enter through the rusting gates of the zoo in this southwestern city, go past the handful of donkeys in a fenced compound and walk toward the cages.

Inside are the desperate-looking lions, leopards and other animals. Their pens are the size of walk-in-closets, with some cramped with two predators. One lion is taking medication because his skin peeled off from hunger.

"We have about two and half weeks of food for them," said Victoria Johner y Cruz, a Geneva-based lawyer who is trying to help save the animals.

The animals were in far worse condition four months ago. They were emaciated, bones protruding. Some were covered with untreated sores from fighting each other for scraps of food, according to zoo workers. The city's government services system had broken down because of incessant airstrikes and clashes between rival armed groups that have plagued Taiz since March of last year.

The zoo depends on fees from visiting tourists, but they all vanished when the conflict erupted. Zoo workers weren't getting paid. There wasn't money to buy food or medicine for the animals. The cages weren't kept clean.

By this February, 12 lions and six leopards had died of starvation and neglect.

"I have a picture of one of them eating his brother," said Bassam Al-Hakimi, a Yemeni youth activist working to save the zoo. "Imagine living and dying in such a small space."

Helpless, zoo workers and activists posted pictures of the starving animals on social media and reached out to local journalists to publicize the animals' plight.

One Twitter post read: "SOS Taiz zoo. Animals are starving. 16-Feb-2016"

Thousands of miles away in Europe, Cruz and other animal lovers were stirred into action by the appeal.  Cruz and Chantal Jonkergouw, a bank executive in Sweden, spearheaded an online crowd-funding campaign to save the animals.

With two rounds of online fundraising efforts, they raised $57,000, Cruz said. The funds were used to pay $3,300 a week in bills to feed the large cats and several donkeys per day, fund surgery and medical treatment for wounds, and pay much of the staff.

https://twitter.com/_AnimalAdvocate/status/714785301084971008

Today, there are 19 lions, including two cubs, and 26 of the rare Arabian leopards in the zoo, along with a smattering of monkeys, deer, lynx and other animals.

But they are still in a precarious state. Cruz has approached several international nongovernmental organizations for funds to continue the animals' care or move them to sanctuaries in safer areas of the country. But she has received the same response, she said.

"We've been knocking at every door," said Cruz. "Every single NGO whose mission is animal welfare, their excuse is the war. They say, 'we can't get in.' With people dying, and the bombs, the plight of the animals seems nonexistent by comparison. People don't focus on it.

"And there's no institutional capacity in Yemen to take care of the animals," she added. "It keeps me up at night. To think of these little face between the bars."

Indeed, critics have questioned why so much focus on the animals when civilians, including children and women, were being killed or wounded regularly in Taiz — and across Yemen. When a senior European Union official brought up the possibility of transferring the animals, there was outrage on social media.

Cruz said they are crowd-funding again, but the money is only trickling now — far less than the $3,300 needed each week.  There's less interest now. "Once the story is old, you know how it is," she said. "The destiny of the zoo seems to be doomed."

If nothing is done to help the zoo, Hakimi worries the endangered leopards could become targets of poachers. Each one, he said, could be sold to wealthy individuals in the Persian Gulf area or elsewhere for $500,000.

If they survive, that is.

"When the money runs out, they will start suffering again," Hakimi said. "And they will start dying again."

Read more:

The tragic story of a dead baby shows the terrible toll of Yemen's war

War in Yemen takes a major turn with offensive against al-Qaeda

How the Yemen conflict risks new chaos in the Middle East


Sudarsan Raghavan is The Post’s Cairo bureau chief, and has reported from more than 60 countries. He has been variously posted in Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi (twice). Raghavan has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as reported from 17 African wars.

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