War births refugees. Streaming out of blasted-out cities, civilians are forced to flee their homes, sometimes their families, away from the bombs, into the unknown.
What happens when you can’t leave? That’s the story of abandoned zoos in wartime. It’s the story unfolding now for the animals in Yemen’s Taiz Zoological Gardens, neglected in the cross fire of the country’s civil war. Here 28 Arabian leopards, critically endangered in the wild, haven’t eaten in six days. They and nearly 240 other animals face imminent death if they aren’t fed very soon.
The story began early this year when the Yemeni government, which runs the zoo, stopped paying the staff and abandoned the facility in the face of escalating violence. In February, after a media flurry drew international attention to the deteriorating conditions at the zoo, SOS Zoo and Bear Rescue—a rescue organization established on Facebook by Chantal Jonkergouw—began raising funds to cover the cost of food, water, and care for the animals. According to Jonkergouw, who lives in Sweden, SOS has raised more than $125,000 from individual donors during the past ten months.
On November 30 she made the agonizing decision to stop feeding the animals until the government agrees to release them to rescuers. She says they’re still getting fresh water every day.
A local Good Samaritan then stepped in to bring the leopards and other meat eaters food, but he hasn’t been seen since December 16—the last time the carnivores were fed. The zoo’s herbivores have been subsisting on a rapidly diminishing supply of rotten vegetables. According to Bassam Al-Hakimi, SOS’s project manager in Taiz, many of the animals are showing signs of extreme weakness.
"As they grow hungrier, the stronger ones might prey on the weaker ones,” Jonkergouw says. “Especially the big cats. Stress also can have a very negative effect on the animals' behavior. Personally, I think that most of them will lie down and die slowly."
Taiz, considered Yemen’s cultural capital, has been a flashpoint in the country’s ongoing civil war, a clash between Shia Muslim Houthis and Saudi-backed forces loyal to the nation’s pre-war government. The Taiz zoo became an overlooked casualty of the war after the government lost control of the city and many zoo workers fled the bombings and food shortages that have plagued the region.
According to Jonkergouw, before SOS intervened on February, 11 lions and six Arabian leopards had starved to death. “One leopard had eaten its female companion,” she says. The surviving animals were found living in squalor on bare concrete, bloodied, with festering abscesses, feces everywhere. One drastically malnourished lion was found with his hip bone jutting through his skin. Emergency surgery saved his life, barely.
Other animals in the zoo include hyenas, monkeys, birds, porcupines, baboons, and guinea pigs. Many of the creatures have displayed signs of severe zoochosis—a condition that often afflicts animals kept captive in artificial environments and is characterized by obsessive, repetitive behaviors. The din and detritus of war may compound the suffering: In mid-December a nearby building was bombed, spraying shrapnel into the zoo’s grounds.
The proximity of the fighting complicates rescue efforts: Other than the SOS-funded Tamdeen Youth Foundation, a local group that has provided all food, care, and water for the animals, no other organization has been involved on the ground—it’s too dangerous.
The Yemeni government, which now has limited sway in Taiz, has denied the transfer permits that might at least give the animals a chance of being extracted from Houthi territory and brought to another country where they would have hope for long-term survival.
SOS has kept the animals alive at a cost of $4,000 a week, covering food and care and modest salaries for a small staff of six, Jonkergouw says. SOS had just $10,000 left when at the end of last month she decided to cut off the food supplies.
“Without [the Yemeni government] being cooperative towards finding a real solution, I don't think it's acceptable any longer” for SOS to provide the funding and care that the government won’t, she says. “They need to feel it. The problem is, it's at the expense of the animals, but there's no other option. Whatever we do, the animals will suffer.”
Evacuating so many captive animals from the heart of a war zone would present the Yemeni government with a dangerous logistical challenge, but offers of safe havens have been made.
The Princess Alia Foundation in Jordan and the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in the United Arab Emirates, in conjunction with that country’s Al Ain Zoo, have both said they’d take the animals. It could cost up to $500,000 USD to evacuate the zoo, which would require armed guards to ensure safe exit. Jonkergouw is confident that her organization and others could raise the money with aid from NGOs but emphasizes that Yemen first needs to agree to facilitate an evacuation. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that monitors the conservation status of species, has actively been trying to broker an agreement between Yemen and the UAE-based rescue facilities, to no avail yet.
Yemeni government officials have told Jonkergouw that they won’t entertain either offer. “They replied that they will never let the animals out of Yemen and that the animals were well cared for and doing fine. And then I really got pissed,” Jonkergouw says. “I said, why are they fine? I raised $125,000 and paid most of that into this project without getting any real cooperation on a sustainable solution for these animals. So I'm fed up with this. I will stop.”
An official from Yemen’s Environment Protection Authority, which has represented the government in talks with Jonkergouw, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Leopard Factor
There are likely only about 80 wild Arabian leopards left on the planet. The Taiz Zoo has 28, including two cubs born in September. Jonkergouw believes Yemen is reluctant to send the cats to another country, even temporarily, because Arabian leopards, as the national animal, are a source of deep pride.
Any loss of Arabian leopards is devastating, given how rare the species is. Four cubs disappeared from the zoo shortly after SOS stepped in. Zoo officials at the time said they were probably eaten. Jonkergouw raises the possibility that they were stolen and sold on the black market. (The Arabian peninsula has a sizable black market for exotic cats as pets.) After that incident she arranged for a full-time armed guard for the leopards.
Now the very thing keeping the leopards trapped in Taiz—their prized status in Yemen—could be the key to their salvation. If the leopards begin dying of starvation, Jonkergouw hopes the government may relent and allow the transfer of the leopards and all the other animals. “Probably more leopards have to die before they realize that they have to evacuate them,” she says.
She intends to start feeding the animals again as soon as Yemen signs a letter of intent permitting rescue by the facilities in Jordan or the UAE, or outlining an alternative plan. She would rather see the animals euthanized than face death by starvation but doubts that will happen. “I don’t think the zoo will cooperate with euthanizing them,” she says.
Where To Go From Here
The situation is getting more dire by the day. With only two of the original six workers still at the zoo, there aren’t enough hands to keep the cages clean, though starvation will likely kill the animals before sepsis does. No one is currently guarding the leopards.
Gail A’Brunzo, Animal Rescue Manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a U.S.-based NGO that rescues and protects animals and their habitats around the world, commends what SOS Zoo and Bear Rescue has been doing to keep the animals alive. She acknowledges that there seems no recourse other than “to cease operations in a last-ditch effort to try and persuade the government to step up. A heartbreaking decision on their part, I’m sure.”
Jonkergouw says she is often asked how she can justify wanting to save animals in a war zone when people are dying and suffering. “It's humans who put these animals there,” she says. “They’re our responsibility. There's so much human suffering in the world, and there will be much more in the future. If you take that as the starting point, then you’ll never get to the welfare of the animals. It's always an excuse to not [act]. It's our responsibility.”