Experience an African safari in Israel

I wanted a safari. I recommended the zoo.

My friend Susie Handelman told me that she was thinking of celebrating both an important birthday and her recent retirement from an illustrious academic and literary career by joining an African safari.

I could hear her ambivalence. For one thing, what better way to launch a decade of renewed exploration than on safari? On the other hand, this particular path that is not taken would be long, winding and dusty for someone who does not value the discomfort of nature as a vacation benefit. In addition, he suffers from motion sickness.

When, after careful consideration, she decided to forgo the safari, I promised to take her to the Tisch Family Zoological Garden in Jerusalem, as Wordsworth would say, “an unvisited place” despite her decades in the capital.

Then came the pandemic and the decision not to fly abroad seemed more astute than ever. Even the zoo became a distant destination amid lockdowns and quarantines.

Recently, I decided to keep my promise and challenged the zoo to plan the itinerary.

FIRST, a aside for readers who oppose zoos and safari parks, arguing that it is unethical for human animals to display other animals.

I am not among you. Zoos like Tisch Family Gardens not only provide exceptional opportunities for children and adults to appreciate the wonders of the animal world, but they also play a key role in preserving endangered animals.

For example, the Persian fallow deer that roamed our homeland in biblical times was nowhere to be found when we became a state. His return is a Zionist triumph involving Mossad. Four generations of deer raised on the slopes have been released. This is typical of Israel-centric anecdotes that add value to a visit to the local zoo.

LIKE A scene in The Wizard of Oz that goes from black and white to color, we leave our urban and urban lives and walk through the zoo gates. We are in the largest open space in Jerusalem, measuring over 22 hectares (55 acres), a model of lengthy environmental planning to preserve the original rocky landscape of the Jerusalem Hills while adding waterfalls, lakes and a plethora of trees.

The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem which is closed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown (credit: REUTERS)

The murmurs of migratory birds stop on their journeys, adding even more color to the thousand fascinating animals that live there full time.

International Relations Manager, Rachael Risby Raz, is waiting to accompany us to the old train that we share with exuberant Jewish and Arab schoolchildren and their teachers. There is no zoophobia here. Children cheer on lions and elephants.

The Tisch family gardens are still popularly called the Biblical Zoo for its original purpose of collecting the animals mentioned in the Bible. The zoo was founded by Hebrew University zoology professor Aharon Shulov in 1940, as he later wrote, “to tear down the invisible wall between the intellectuals on Mount Scopus and the general public.”

We disembark, where else? – in the African savannah.

Our host is the main herbivore keeper, Rushdie Alyan. Don’t think about rabbits. Herbivores include giraffes and rhinos.

Alyan insists that the giraffes recognize his bald head, as the 1,000-pound beasts rush to the fence where he holds a bucket of carob trees. Standing nearby, we see their 50-centimeter long tongues grasp their antioxidant-rich carob pods.

The global number of giraffes has declined 40% in the last three decades, but Jerusalem giraffes, like the humans of Jerusalem, are prolific. They share the grazing ground with zebras and rhinos, one of which also comes over for a bite to eat. Susie thinks rhinos can look like the giant from the Book of Job. And yes, rhinos are vegetarians.

Speaking of which, the carts roll bearing tithes of fruits and vegetables from Israeli produce. The zoo is formally “owned” by a kohen, so the animals can enjoy the decimated products. Another religiously sensitive aspect of the zoo is the signage on the collared peccary, a mammal with a swine appearance. To the explanation in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Yiddish has been added: “Das iz nicht a hazir” (This is not a pig).

An area dedicated to biblical animals includes ibex, mountain gazelles, and oryx. The horned reindeer, however, is shown without mentioning Santa’s sleigh.

We arrived in “Australia”, home to kangaroos, many moms with jewelry in their pockets (!), Cassowaries and fruit bats.

Now we’re hungry, and our hostess spreads a blue-and-white checkered fleur-de-lis tablecloth on a picnic table. Lunch arrives in a golf cart. We have eaten at many outdoor venues, but nothing compares to dining in the heart of the zoo!

Refreshed, we arrived in time to watch the Borneo orangutans training session. They are participants in the European Association of Zoos’ orangutan population management program, eager to create a support population for the one that is declining in the wild.

Like all their congeners, these red-furred primates receive veterinary care and live longer than in the wild. They need to learn to stand on a scale, open their mouths to inspect teeth, and accept drops and injections.

Trainer Benjamin Fainsod, who has been working at the zoo since he was 12 years old, offers friendly verbal requests in English to the orangutans. They are smart and training makes them smarter. When Fainsod says “shoulder,” they happily point to his scapulae. Healthy treats abound, but the workout is serious. As they obey, Fainsod gently touches them with a dummy needle, so that when they need real shots it won’t be emotionally traumatic.

Next door, the Javanese langur monkeys give up their funny stunts to participate in their studies. Only newborns swing high overhead and cut the class.

We continued walking, admiring the peacocks preening, the two-colored pelicans swaying, the capybaras swimming. There is still much more to explore, but Susie indicates that she is ready to finish her inaugural visit. After all, she can come back soon, maybe even for a night tour.

I remember the story of Izak from Krakow who repeatedly dreamed of a treasure buried under the royal bridge in Prague. He traveled there and was accosted by a guard. When he confessed the reason for the visit, the officer laughed and said: “I dreamed that a guy named Izak from Krakow has a treasure buried under his furnace. Would you travel to Krakow to unearth it? Isak returned home and found the treasure.

Personally, I have always wanted to visit the Valley of the Butterflies in Rhodes. But then Risby Raz mentions the zoo’s new butterfly pavilion that just opened this month. Count on me.

The writer is the director of public relations for Israel at Hadassah, the Zionist Organization of Women of America. His latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.


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