Zoos and the horrors of war

According to press reports, two traumatised lions have been moved from Gaza to a new home in Jordan. Let me apologise in advance for dwelling on the plight of animals when more than 1,200 people, including hundreds of innocent children, were killed in the 50-day onslaught on that beleaguered enclave.

Gazans, according to a report on the Wildlife News website, were very fond of their zoo. Then the Israelis bombed it, killing 80 of the animals. Twenty others survived the carnage but were left for days without adequate food, water, or veterinary care. Their enclosures were so badly damaged that the unfortunate creatures couldn’t be controlled within them, so cleaning had to be suspended. Some are said to have died from filth-related diseases. Traumatised by the explosions, many became aggressive, a threat to their keepers. ‘Carcasses were scattered all over the place’, Dr Mil Khalil told the London Independent. He is a veterinary surgeon with the international animal charity Four Paws. As soon as hostilities ceased, his team came to the rescue. It established a supply of fresh water and began repairing the damaged compounds.

One of the zoo’s three lions had been killed. A male and a pregnant female had survived but keeping big cats in Gaza was no longer viable. The pair were anaesthetised, medically examined, loaded into crates and transported to a compound at the Al Ma’wa Wildlife sanctuary 40km from Amman. It’s a temporary measure, pending the construction of a permanent home. Now, the Four Paws team is helping the other victims; monkeys, cats, wolves, pelicans, birds of prey and a crocodile.

The Gaza report calls to mind events in Dublin, 73 years ago. On May 31 1941, a German aircraft bombed the North Strand, killing 37 people. One bomb fell close to the Dog Pond in the Phoenix Park over 4km away from the carnage and 150 metres from the perimeter fence of the Zoo. Catherine de Courcy,writing in Dublin Zoo an Illustrated History, quotes an eye-witness account of the incident. Michael Ward was living with his grandfather, Cedric Flood, in the zoo. Ward heard the plane and knew from the sound that it was German; he had lived in the South of England in what was known as ‘bomb alley’. He had just got out of bed when there was a massive explosion. The windows of the house were shattered. His grandfather took a gun and went outside, fearing that some of the zoo’s lions, leopards or wolves might be on the loose. They weren’t. The bison had charged the railings of its compound but had not broken through.

Sarah, the elephant, was safe and well in her house, next morning, but the gate was open. Then elephant footprints were discovered, leading from the compound to the zoo lake and back. During the night, she had opened the door of her enclosure, visited the lake and returned home.

Food was scarce for man and beast during the ‘Emergency’. The zoo’s animals survived, helped by donations of vegetable leaves, rejected fruit, tinned meat, donkey and horse flesh. Carcasses of deer shot in Wicklow and of goats culled at the Scalp in south County Dublin provided some fresh meat for the carnivores.

Though life was tough for the zoo’s inhabitants, it was much more so for animals living outside. The descendents of the fallow deer, introduced by the Duke of Ormonde in 1662, roamed the Phoenix Park. Wolves may have helped control their numbers. In 1652, however, measures were enacted ‘for the destruction of wolves in the barony of Castleknock’. At one time, the deer herd totalled almost 1,300. With the predators gone, it had to be culled from time to time. During the war years, large areas of the Park were turned over to agriculture. Peat and wood were stored at strategic locations. Only 40 deer were allowed to remain. Nowadays numbers are kept at around 400.

  • Catherine de Courcy, Dublin Zoo an Illustrated History. The Collins Press. 2009.


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