A zoo is moving: how an organization rescues animals from crisis areas


After Dr. Crossing several borders and covering thousands of kilometers, Amir Khalil pushes an arrow drenched with ketamine into a thin blowpipe. Khalil stands in front of the baboon cage at Zoo Rafah in the south of Gaza, sweat forms rivulets on his forehead, he takes a deep breath, but the baboons do not let themselves be shot with dart from his stun gun in the buttocks. Quick as pinball balls they hunt screaming through the enclosure. For the first monkey, he shoots five darts until he lies. The other monkey, maybe now he finally suspects what is in store for him, picks up one of the stun darts and throws him back towards Dr. Khalil. “Off the cage!” Khalil and ducks in front of the projectile. First the rockets, then Hamas, and now the monkey is fighting back.

“Good luck!”

Amir Khalil actually has a lot of experience with what he does. He works for the animal welfare organization Four Paws, and there is hardly a war in the Arab world that he has not experienced in recent years. In 2003 he flew to Baghdad and rescued abandoned animals from Saddam Hussein's private zoo, while US troops bombarded the city. In 2011, he went to Tripoli during the Civil War and took care of the 700 hungry animals in the zoo of the Libyan capital with his team. In 2017 he rescued lions and bears from Mosul in Iraq and 13 animals from the zoo of the devastated Aleppo in Syria. And now Rafah, the oldest zoo in the Gaza Strip. Dr. Khalil has been here many times. He has seen monkeys playing in the trash and an eagle sitting in such a tight cage that he can not even stretch his wings. The owner of the zoo is not malicious, says Khalil, but there is a lack of money for large cages, food and medicine. Good and bad are difficult terms for Khalil anyway.

47 zoo animals are loaded by the NGO - the preparation of the rescue operation took months

47 zoo animals are loaded by the NGO – the preparation of the rescue operation took months

Anyway, he decided to save the animals. He has been negotiating for several months. With the zoo director. Hamas. With Israel. He took care of papers and transport. Now he is on the brink of the biggest rescue operation of his career.

Two weeks before the day at the zoo, where a monkey will throw at him with stun darts, Amir Khalil walks to the gate at the airport in Vienna. He is wearing a denim jacket and a suitcase with a stun gun. Next to him is his assistant Marion Lombard. She is from France and has been working for Khalil since September. Since then, people often say to her, “Good luck!”

“What are you going to do?”, Asks the lady of the airline Dr. med. Khalil now at the counter and looks suspiciously at all the boxes, medicine cases and cages that he and his assistant have with them.

“We are an international animal welfare organization and will rescue animals from a zoo in the Gaza Strip,” Dr. Khalil.

“What animals?” Asks the lady, raising her eyebrows.

“Five lions, four monkeys, two wolves, a hyena …”

The lady starts to laugh.

A child sits on a mummified lion, he was killed in a rocket attack

A child sits on a mummified lion, he was killed in a rocket attack

“Should we bring you a monkey?” Khalil.

Marion Lombard says, “People often think we're crazy.”

Amir Khalil: “We are crazy too.”

Marion Lombard: “Not me.”

Dr. Khalil: “Not yet.”

Four paws

He knows that what he does can be cynical. Rescuing animals from crisis zones while humans die. But everything depends on him, the animals, the people. He says, “Animals can educate people into humanity.” Especially in the war. Where humanity is always lost.

According to Dr. Khalil has no political intentions for the organization, and yet she needs politics like a mushroom on the forest floor. During the trip you will understand how Dr. Khalil, this fat-bellied man with a big heart, manages to win over politicians.

As Dr. Khalil was still a child, he liked to watch the American television series “Daktari” with the vet. Marsh Tracy. He saw Dr. Tracy as the lion cubs examined it, and dreamed of him on the Wildlife Station to Africa – the adventure. Meanwhile, Dr. Khalil's life itself has become a single adventure, and unlike Daktari, this is not a feature film.

This hyena is doing very badly. After the examination, Dr. Khalil her infusions

This hyena is doing very badly. After the examination, Dr. Khalil her infusions

He saw bodies, was threatened with death, came under fire. When used in Mosul, a car bomb exploded only a few meters away. Still, he claims, “I'm not tired of life.” Dr. Khalil wears no protective vest during his missions. Instead, he has a fabric shirt on with a weasel, the coat of arms of his NGO.

Amir Khalil was born 54 years ago in the Fayyum Basin in Egypt and studied veterinary medicine in Cairo. The animal welfare organization Four Paws was founded in Vienna in 1988 by Heli Dungler. The idea arose where only really great ideas are created: at the counter of an Austrian Beisl.

“My Way”

His first trip as a veterinarian led Dr. Khalil 25 years ago in the Balkans. He later rescued bears with Brigitte Bardot, but he soon realized that it was the crises and conflicts that really interested him.

So now Gaza, but first of all, they all meet in a hotel in Jordan. On the bus to the hotel, Amir Youtube opens and clicks Frank Sinatra. “His favorite artist is Cat Stevens, but his favorite song,” My Way “by Frank Sinatra, sings:” Regrets, I've had a few. “Marion Lombard rolls his eyes, Dr. Khalil laughs, and outside, the setting sun bathes Amman in golden light.

Other journalists and a film team of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei travel a little later, for a documentary. Over the years Dr. Khalil and his rescue missions have become more and more famous. And the media attention is important for “Four paws”, it brings donations, to which the organization is dependent. And the rescue operation in Gaza is not only the largest yet, but also the most expensive.

Visitors to the zoo before the evacuation. The park was one of the few attractions in Gaza:

Visitors to the zoo before the evacuation. The park was one of the few attractions in Gaza:

On the bus en route to the Gaza border, Khalil receives word that a rocket hit a house in the village of Mischmeret, northeast of Tel Aviv, in the early morning. The rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip. Seven people were injured in the attack, including children – and a baby.

Dr. Khalil is breathing hard. That's exactly what he does not need right now. He knows: In air raids, border crossings between Israel and Gaza can be closed. Now he can only wait. Even before they leave Jordan, he has to tell his team, “The border with Gaza is closed, we will not be able to enter today.”


Dr. Khalil goes out and puts a cigarette on. He knows that the hotter the conflict, the less interested someone is in their mission. Then the animals move back to the last place. And he also knows that every day that gets lost costs a lot of money. In any case, the mission is over for today. You drive back to the hotel in Jordan.

In the evening, everyone meets in room 210. At the Jordanian border, the team bought duty-free whiskey and wine. You sit together, smoke cigarettes and think about the day. On CNN they see the bombing that Israel fires as an act of revenge on Gaza. The war is suddenly very close. Tomorrow they want to start a new attempt.

But even that will not work. The situation is too dangerous. Dr. Khalil stops the mission. He temporarily dissolves the team. No entry without entry.

Three days later, he sends a Whatsapp message. One should come as soon as possible to the border to Gaza. There appears Dr. Khalil with a white minivan and a much smaller team.

A child wants to feed the lions. The condition of the cages is not only dangerous for the animals.

A child wants to feed the lions. The condition of the cages is not only dangerous for the animals.

As they pass the border in Erez, everyone cheers. There are still no permits for the departure, a minister Khalil problems. But they are here. The team goes directly to minibuses and a few local helpers to the zoo. The journey takes almost an hour – not even as big as the state of Bremen in an area – and it leads along the beach. The driver says that no one can go into the sea because it is contaminated, just like the tap water. By 2020, a UN report warned in July 2017, the area could become “uninhabitable”. Health care, education and public life in Gaza were already inadequate, according to the report.

The zoo itself is actually just a house with a palm-fringed garden. In the garden cages are lined up in horseshoe shape. The animals are sitting in the cages. Almost all were smuggled illegally through underground tunnels from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. When they tried to squeeze a giraffe through the low tunnel, they broke her neck. Some animals also died from rocket attacks from Israel. In the middle of the zoo are children's carousels, from which the paint peels off. On park benches, veiled women sit and have a picnic.

Zoo in the Gaza Strip is a small sensation

Seen from the outside, the zoo is a peaceful place. Children laugh, colorfully painted signs, a small oasis almost in this otherwise so poor and tortured by war and hatred area. A zoo in the Gaza Strip is a small sensation.

But those who look in the cages understand why Dr. Khalil wants to evacuate the animals. A hyena is breathing heavily and half dead in a cage barely larger than a dressing room. An older lion looks apathetically through iron bars. Pelicans run through garbage piles. A few of the killed animals were stuffed and exhibited. At the beginning of the year, four lion cubs froze in the zoo. One can say that the standards in Gaza are far from optimal. Once, a zoo director had two donkeys painted with stripes to look like zebras.

As Dr. Two years ago Khalil evacuated animals from the “Magic World” amusement park near Aleppo from Syria, most people had already fled. It's different in Gaza. Dr. Khalil will take the animals, but the humans stay. “A zoo in Gaza,” says Dr. Khalil, “is a prison in a prison.”

In the middle of the zoo are carousels - under the corrugated iron huts on the edge of the animals live

In the middle of the zoo are carousels – under the corrugated iron huts on the edge of the animals live

A day later, Khalil runs through the lobby of the hotel, smoking and thinking. He comes to the decision: he has to talk to someone from Hamas, a local helper knows that one of the leaders is holding a press conference in a hotel. At the door to the hotel room Dr. Khalil the Hamas leader, he speaks Arabic, he knows, it is now about the important first impression. The Hamas leader looks at Dr. Khalil looks like a mental patient and refers him to his office manager. He listens for a long time. Dr. Khalil shows him pictures of his three daughters. In the end, the bureau chief says he will make a strong commitment to the mission.

In the evening Dr. Khalil the team and says, “It's starting soon, tomorrow, we'll work against time because we have to go before the borders close.” The next morning the team of Dr.-Ing. Khalil in the zoo. All animals need a chip so that they are allowed to leave. In addition, the anesthetic syringes must be prepared. A few animals need to be sedated to get them in the cages. The big lions, the hyena, the wolf and the baboons.


Dr. Khalil himself goes to the meeting with Hamas and comes back a little later relieved. For the last time, it was said, Dr. Khalil animals elsewhere. But there was also trouble. The organization of Dr. Khalil, as the Hamas people saw it, presents himself as a savior and the zoo as a disaster. They were annoyed by the hashtag #savegazaanimals Four Paws invented.

Hamas people told Dr. Khalil, the people of Gaza would do their best. And just those who had so little really needed a zoo. Moreover, they are not second-class people. You would think it better if Dr. The next time Khalil and his organization are helping on the ground to improve the situation, instead of evacuating the animals. They offered to Dr. Khalil for providing land. Dr. Khalil promised he would work on it. But this time, he could make it clear, he would have to take the animals with him.

Entered faces: Dr. Khalil and assistant Marion Lombard learn that the first rescue attempt must be stopped

Entered faces: Dr. Khalil and assistant Marion Lombard learn that the first rescue attempt must be stopped

Back at the zoo, then the chaos begins. The NGO will only stay a few hours for the entire evacuation. It was planned for three days. The monkey throws the stun darts at him. Khalil puts sweat on his forehead. As if the animals suspected that something was different, they suddenly raged against the foreign rescuers with all their might. The whole zoo goes crazy. A few adolescents want to support the animal rights activists and try to capture the pelicans, but one escapes and runs wing-flapping away.

Anyway: out of every enclosure screams, roars, meows, fists and flutters. A young lioness jumps in panic on the roof of her cage. The zoo owner catches her with a net. The other young lions are to be lured by the staff of the zoo with dead chickens in the cages. But that does not work. So they pull plastic bags over their heads, which seems to make the lions even more angry.

The monkeys are finally asleep and in their boxes. Dr. Khalil carries a stunned wolf in a cage. The zoo director's brother takes off his right slipper and hits one of the helpers, for whatever reason.


Everywhere is screaming, sometimes in English, mostly in Arabic, cats escaped, and in an attempt to put a monkey family in the cages, the baby monkey escapes. The zoo director refuses to hand over eight dog puppies to the animal rights activists because he says the puppies are not included in his contract with the NGO, so they belong to him. It comes to a fight. Dr. Khalil mediates and calms down. The mother of the puppies growls. In the end, she will be taken away without her children.

Mad baboon with stunning arrow

Mad baboon with stunning arrow

When almost all animals are finally in the cages, the school is also out, and hundreds of noisy schoolchildren flock to the entrance of the zoo, to the big truck on which the animals are to be loaded. It is getting louder and more excited. Once, an ostrich cage almost tilts off the truck because one of the helpers can no longer hold it. Dr. Khalil stands surrounded by hundreds of people on the lift and persistently directs the cages that swing threateningly back and forth on a hook.

The zoo director sneaked into his house and watched the buzz from the balcony. He has made good money from the business with the animal welfare organization. But while the cages are being loaded, a tear runs down his cheek.


“Why are you taking the animals away from us?” Asks a little schoolgirl. Khalil in Arabic. “We do not take them away, they only get a better home,” he replies. One of the local helpers says: “The animals are allowed to leave what we are dreaming about.” For a brief moment you can feel sadness between all the animals and the bustle that caused the strangers, even if they really only wanted good.

When the last cage is loaded, the zoo director's brother closes the gate. The truck starts the engine, the team of dr. Khalil takes refuge in the minivans. The Zoo Rafah is history. With the money of four paws, the zoo owner wants to open a café on the square.

After the excitement, Dr. Khalil. On some days he smokes four boxes.

After the excitement, Dr. Khalil. On some days he smokes four boxes.

The next day, the organization publishes a press release: “Four paws has made its biggest coup so far.” The team evacuated 47 zoo animals from the Gaza Strip.

Almost all animals have survived the transport well. The two older lions are on their way to South Africa. The three boys were brought to a shelter in Jordan in front of Princess Alia, the half-sister of King Abdullah.

Towards the sun

It took a long time for the lions to get out of their cages. They may have been imprisoned for a long time, like prisoners, and they often have to relearn freedom first. The lion, it seemed, first scared her. The pelicans got used to it faster. They were released on the Dead Sea and immediately flew towards the sun.

And who is Dr. Khalil? A hero, a dreamer, an animal freak, a driven one? Maybe he is everything, and maybe it does not matter. Because at the end of this story five lions entered a piece of grass for the first time in their lives.

If you are Dr. Khalil asks if he has a guilty conscience about people who can no longer visit the zoo, then he says, “Yes.”


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