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Gaza's zoo animals caught in crossfire of Israel-Hamas conflict

By Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)
A baboon looks at the carcass of a family member at a zoo in Gaza, on Thursday, August 14. The zoo was almost completely destroyed during the Israel-Hamas conflict. A baboon looks at the carcass of a family member at a zoo in Gaza, on Thursday, August 14. The zoo was almost completely destroyed during the Israel-Hamas conflict.
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Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
Animals caught in Gaza crossfire
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zoo in Gaza nearly destroyed during recent Israel-Hamas conflict
  • Many of the zoo's animals were killed -- and the survivors are struggling from lack of food and water
  • CNN understands the Israeli military believes Hamas may have had rocket launchers in vicinity of zoo
  • Hamas says the park is a civilian area, but CNN crew saw metal cases that looked like destroyed rocket batteries

Jabalya, Gaza (CNN) -- The sights at the Gaza zoo couldn't be sadder.

In a tiny cage, a baboon sits, picking seeds off the floor, desperately eating whatever he can find. Next to the baboon, the carcass of his mate and five offspring lay in the pen, decomposing in the August heat.

"Eight to 10 monkeys were killed," says Abu Sameer, the zoo's chief veterinarian. "Also a peacock, a gazelle, a lion, and a fox."

The carcasses of dead animals, mostly monkeys, lay scattered across the scorched grass between the pens. In one of the cages, a dead peacock lays in front of two hungry lions. In another, a crocodile lounges in the hot sun; there is almost no water in the enclosure, which also holds a pelican and a duck.

The zoo, part of the Al-Bisan recreational park in Jabalya, northern Gaza, was hit multiple times during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas militants.

Many of the animals seem weak and traumatized. Staff members say that on top of the injuries some of the animals sustained during the violence, many also have not eaten in days because the zoo lacks funds to buy food, and they're getting virtually no assistance.

Gaza's zoo animals caught in crossfire
Key to peace in Gaza

"The situation is very bad," said Sameer. "We can't get the animals out to clean the cages. Many of them are getting sick because they are weak and it is dirty. But we don't have any alternative places."

The situation is most dire for the lions, according to Sameer. One was killed during the conflict and three remain in the zoo. Sameer says he does not have the funds to buy them the meat they need.

"They have not eaten for 10 to 15 days," he said. "We could not reach them during the fighting. When it got calmer at least we could bring them some water."

To help, at least a little, the CNN crew bought six chickens at the local market for the zoo's staff to feed to the lions.

It was clear to see how hungry the lions were. They ran toward the edge of the cage and began roaring the moment they saw us approaching with the dead chickens. Once we handed them over, they would take turns -- one lion would eat while the other kept an eye on us. When we got too close to the cage, the lions would charge and roar again, warning us to back off.

Al-Bisan Park is run by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. Built in 2008, it was supposed to be a tourist attraction for Gazans. It includes a soccer field, an amusement park with carousels, and several buildings, most of which were flattened by airstrikes during the recent conflict.

An Israeli military spokesman told CNN that there is an investigation under way into allegations the zoo had been hit by airstrikes, and said he could not go into more detail due to legal reasons.

But CNN understands from Israeli sources that the military believes there may have been a number of Hamas rocket launchers in the area of the zoo, and that the zoo might have suffered collateral damage in strikes targeting those rocket launchers. Hamas says the park is in a civilian area, but our crew did see several charred and mangled metal cases that looked like destroyed rocket batteries.

The zoo staff says its main task for now is saving the lives of the animals.

"The first step has to be providing food," says vet Abu Sameer. "Then we must rebuild the place and make it suitable for them to live in again."

But with more than 2,000 people killed and many homes destroyed in the recent fighting, most people in Gaza and the international community have more pressing problems than the plight of zoo animals.

In the meantime, the lions, crocodiles, monkeys and birds who survived the hostilities at the zoo now face the danger of succumbing to hunger and disease in the aftermath of this man-made war.

Talal Abu Rahma contributed to this story.

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