Experience an African safari in Israel

She wanted a safari. I recommended the zoo.

My friend Susie Handelman told me that she plans to celebrate both an important anniversary and her recent retirement from an illustrious academic and literary career by going on an African safari.

I could hear his ambivalence. On the one hand, what better than a safari to launch a decade of renewed exploration? On the flip side, this particular road not taken would be long, twisty, and dusty for someone who doesn’t view the discomfort of the wilderness as a vacation perk. In addition, she suffers from motion sickness.

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

Then came the pandemic, and the decision not to fly overseas seemed wiser than ever. Even the zoo has become a distant destination amid closures and quarantines.

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

FIRST, AN aside to 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 the Tisch Allotment Gardens not only provide rare opportunities for children and adults to appreciate the wonders of the animal world, but also play a key role in the preservation of endangered animals.

For example, the Persian deer that roamed our homeland in Bible times were nowhere to be found when we became a state. Their return is a Zionist triumph involving the Mossad. Four generations of fed deer have been released into the hills. This is typical of Israel-centric anecdotes that add value to a visit to the local zoo.

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

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

Whispers of migrating birds stop as they travel, adding even more color to the thousand fascinating animals that live there full time.

Director of International Relations Rachael Risby Raz is waiting for us to escort us to the old-fashioned train that we share with exuberant and feasting Jewish and Arab schoolchildren and their teachers. No zoophobia here. The children applaud the lions and the elephants.

The Tisch family gardens are still commonly referred to as the Biblical Zoo for its original purpose of bringing together 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 of Mount Scopus and the general public.”

We disembark – where else? – to the African Savannah.

Our host is the Chief Herbivore Custodian Rushdie Alyan. Don’t think of rabbits. Herbivores include giraffes and rhinos.

Alyan insists that the giraffes recognize his bald head, when the 1000-pound beasts rush to the fence where he holds a bucket of carob bean. Up close, we see their two-foot-long tongues grabbing their antioxidant-rich carob pods.

The global number of giraffes has declined by 40% over the past three decades, but Jerusalem giraffes, like Jerusalem humans, are prolific. They share the pastures with zebras and rhinos, one of which also comes for a snack. Susie thinks rhinos can look like the juggernaut from the Book of Job. And, yes, rhinos are vegetarians.

Speaking of which, carts roll around carrying tithes of fruits and vegetables of Israeli produce. The zoo is officially “owned” by a kohen, so the animals can enjoy the proceeds of tithing. Another religious aspect of the zoo is the signage on the collared peccary, a porcine-like mammal. To the Hebrew, Arabic and English explanation was added Yiddish: “Das iz nicht a hazir” (It is not a pig).

An area dedicated to biblical animals includes ibex, mountain gazelles and oryx. The horned reindeer, however, are displayed without mention of Santa’s sleigh.

We arrive in “Australia”, homeland of kangaroos, many mothers with joeys in their pockets (!), Cassowaries and fruit bats.

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

Refreshed, we arrive on time to observe the Borneo orangutan training session. They participate in the European Association of Zoos’ Orangutan Population Management Program, eager to create a backup population for the dwindling one in the wild.

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

Trainer Benjamin Fainsod, who has worked at the zoo since the age of 12, makes friendly verbal requests in English to the orangutans. They are smart and training makes them smarter. When Fainsod says “shoulder,” they happily show off their shoulder blades. Healthy treats are plentiful, but the workout is serious. As they conform, Fainsod gently touches them with a dummy needle, so that when they need real punches, it isn’t emotionally traumatic.

Beside, the langur monkeys of Java give up their playful acrobatics to participate in their schooling. Only newborns swing high above and cut the class.

We continue to walk, admiring the preening peacocks, the balancing two-colored pelicans, the capybaras swimming. There is still so much to explore, but Susie signals that she is ready to end her inaugural visit. After all, she may be back soon, maybe even for a nighttime visit.

I remember this story of Izak from Krakow who repeatedly dreamed of a treasure buried under the Royal Bridge in Prague. He went there and was accosted by a guard. When he confessed the reason for his visit, the officer laughed and said: “I dreamed that a guy named Izak from Krakow had treasure buried under his oven. Would I travel to Krakow to dig it up? 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 which just opened this month. Count on me.

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


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