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Monday, August 13, 2007

A Day At The Zoo

Also known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, short-handed to The Biblical Zoo by many, and even more informally, the Jerusalem Zoo.

I've been to a lot of zoos as a result of being a military brat who moved a lot. Each new region brought me to a new zoo. The all-time favorite zoo of mine has always been the San Diego Zoo, although I have to admit that I came lately to prefer their Wild Animal Park in Escondido....there was something very refreshing about watching the animals run free while the humans observed from the enclosed cars of the passing tram.

I love aquariums also, but that's another post.

As an animal afficionda, I have to admit that the Jerusalem Zoo far surpassed my expectations. It's worth a trip, really! In fact, I'll be going again.

I'm aware that many people hate zoos because they take animals out of captivity. On the other hand, I saw a lot of species that are hovering on the brink of extinction in this zoo and others, so I have to disagree with PETA and their ilk about zoo'ing animals. Life in captivity, with conjugal visits and room service, has to beat extinction.

The zoo is just on the edge of Jerusalem, just beyond the Malcha Mall. It looks more like a park than a zoo, with broad grassy areas, lots of seating, many lakes and ample trash cans in which to toss your wrappers and empty cups or bottles (hint, hint).

While I saw animals that were not all that unusual or remarkable (we have Mallard ducks on the creek near my former home in California) it was wonderful to see animals that I have only read about or seen on the National Geographic channel. For example, I've read about Syrian bears....but I pictured something like a mini-brown-bear or panda. Yesterday, I finally saw one -- think "miniature Grizzly" because that's exactly what it looks like.

Wikipedia says: The Syrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) is the smallest subspecies of Brown Bear. [Note: I saw these guys up close, and they're NOT all that small, folks.] They are omnivorous, eating almost any type of food, including meat, grass, and fruits. This subspecies occupies a large area in western Asia, but their population is declining due to habitat destruction, poaching, and fragmentation of population. Syrian brown bears were historically found in Anatolia (Turkey), Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and parts of Afghanistan...It is suggested that this species of bear is the one God sent to maul the 42 youths that insulted Elisha in the Second Book of Kings of The Bible

The adults are big enough, and temperamental enough, to scare off any Yosemite brown bear. The Syrian bears were hunted to extinction in the lands west of the Jordan around 1917. It was nice to see a clan thriving in the zoo.

Another exhibit made me grin -- the prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are ubiquitious in some parts of the American Midwest, and while I know they are threatened by farmers and ranchers, somehow they always struck me as too pedestrian for a zoo exhibit.....but the Israeli kids were enchanted by them and their antics.

I wonder if South Africans are as blase about meerkats, whom I could watch for hours?

The zoo is wheelchair accessible on the pathways. I have to admit, to my shame, I did not notice whether the entrances to the enclosed buildings easily allow wheelchairs or not. Sorry. The zoo's website (hit the link in the title and go to "English", above) states that all of the exhibits are wheelchair and baby stroller accessible, and that visitors can borrow a wheelchair if they wish. To borrow the wheelchair, you must leave your ID. This amenity is first-come, first-serve, so if a member of your family needs a wheelchair, you might call first and make sure they have enough. The pathways are gradual, but there is a definite uphill when going to the upper levels, although it is not strenuous.

If you are disinclined to walk or wheel, there is a train! But you have to pay for the train, can only disembark at certain places and the tour in is Hebrew.

The exhibits themselves are well marked for the most part, with signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as well as each animal's scientific name in Latin.

The zoo wasn't always this big, or in this part of Jerusalem. I shamelessly stole some of its history from the zoo website:

The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was originally established in 1928 as a tiny little children's zoo on Harav Kook Street in central Jerusalem. The zoo was founded and established by the late Prof. Aharon Shulov, one of the pioneers in the field of zoology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1941, a somewhat larger zoo was established on Shmuel Hanavi Street in Jerusalem. This one covered an area of 4.5 dunams (0.45 hectares, or just over one acre). In 1947 the zoo was moved to Mt. Scopus, where the Hebrew University had a plot of land set aside for it. As a result of the evident suffering of the animals during and after Israel's War of Independence in 1948, a decision was made to transfer the zoo once again, this time to a new and larger area of 60 dunams (6 hectares, or just under 15 acres) in Givat Komuna, adjacent to the neighbourhood of Romema. The zoo remained here for 41 years, from 1950 to 1991. During this time it gradually developed into a well-known and beloved attraction. The old zoo closed in 1991, and the process of moving to the new location was begun.

My neighbor tells me that when her children were little, the zoo was a wonderful attraction and easy to get to in downtown Jerusalem. However, I cannot imagine the poor beasties in the central city with all the noise, the crowding and the pollution...I have trouble enough imagining people living in the crowded neighborhoods of city center.

The zoo reopened in its current location near the southwestern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Manahat (formerly Malkha) in 1993. It was now The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem - The Biblical Zoo.
Today, the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, as it is still unofficially known, stretches across an area of 250 dunams (25 hectares or 62 acres) in a lovely valley surrounded by green hills and new neighbourhoods. The zoo encircles a small lake situated near the main gate. The lake is fed by a series of pools and waterfalls that flow one into the other. Spacious lawns and shady beauty spots surround the lake and pools. The water system is artificial, and relies on recycled water. The zoo is built on two main levels that house most of the animal exhibits. One main, circular route extends the length of both levels and connects most of the sites on the zoo grounds. Additional side paths also connect the two levels, and exhibits are situated along these paths as well.

I don't know the Tisch Family, but since Yossi's family and mine spent a very nice day wandering around the zoo and enjoying what their contribution to Life-In-Jerusalem has wrought, I would like to say "thank you" from the heart. Said thanks also go to the many families who have contributed individual exhibits for the pleasure of children and those adults among us who still find animals wonderful.

More thanks go to the volunteers. Over 50 people volunteer every week to help the zoo staff care for the animals.

I learned a couple of things on this first trip to the zoo here. One nice discovery is that in hot weather, the zoo not only cools the animals, its cools the visiting people. If you don't want to get wet, you can sit on a bench under a canopy; if you are like me and don't fuss about such things, you can stand along the railings of the open enclosures and get "misted" by overhead mini-showers. It was HOT yesterday--I found it refreshing, as did the kids, and we all dried off in minutes.

The zoo gets a lot of visitors in the summer, naturally. It's especially popular with chareidi families as an outing, although there was an ample mix of people from all walks of Israeli life. Just be prepared for LOTS of baby strollers if you visit late morning to early afternoon, as we did.

When we go again, we are opting for evening. A couple of hours before sunset and the heat of the day has cooled so the day-sleepers (lions, leapards, etc.) are a bit more active. Also, Jerusalem generally has a westerly breeze in the evenings which makes it a little easier for the wandering visitor hiking about the exhibits.

Go. Enjoy. Take the kids. Or take a date--it's really a nice place to stroll around.

photo courtesy of the The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens website


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