This Palestinian Taxidermist's Stuffed Animal Zoo Is Kind of Heartbreaking
Qalqilya zoo is full of animals killed in war.
A fearsome lion towers over its prey.
Okay sure, so somebody stuffed Napoleon's horse, but in general, no one pays too much attention to the animal victims of war. No one except Dr Sami Khader, that is.
Dr Khader lives in the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. It's a place that's seen its fair share of hate. Since 2003, the 40,000 or so people who live there have been encircled by the walls of the infamous Israeli West Bank Barrier. It's also home to Palestine's only zoo, of which Dr Khader is the resident veterinarian and director.
Scattered around his room are plastic soda bottles of various sizes that serve as mobile terrariums for the doctors’ creatures. On the table two snakes are curled up at the base of their bottles, on the floor a scorpion paces back and forth in its container and a fizzy drinks cap pokes out of the doctor’s leather bag, though I can't see what creature is living in that. Maybe it’s just a Coke. All the animals were either found by the doctor or dropped in by the Qalqilya townspeople, and scattered among the living are skeletons, pinned insects and a stuffed bobcat.
Dr Sami Khader, director, resident veterinarian and self-taught taxidermist at Qalqilya zoo.
“Do you want to hold it?” Dr Khader asks, gesturing to a snake on the desk. He casually describes being bitten by another snake recently, by a species that could, apparently, have killed him in an hour had it not been for a delayed shot of anti-venom.
“It was a very stupid day," recalls Dr Khader. "I was giving a lecture at a school and I brought some snakes to show the kids. It was dark and I reached into the wrong container. Usually I pick the snake up by its head, but this day I chose the wrong snake and I was bitten. I acted like nothing happened. I finished the presentation then went to the hospital.”
I’m not here to gawp at snakes in bottles, though, I’m here to see an exhibition of stuffed animals that Dr Khader has created from the beasts that were killed in the Second Intifada, the four-year period of fighting that claimed the lives of 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis.
It is probably worth mentioning at this point that Dr Khader appears to be an entirely self-taught taxidermist.
During this period of warfare, Dr Khader had the impossible task of looking after the entire zoo alone. Hordes of animals perished during the Israeli siege of the city; mostly starving to death or dying from untreated diseases. However the zoo’s location also played its part in the death toll. The back of the complex is surrounded by three schools, which has caused problems, Dr Khader explains to me, when “tanks have come into the city, and the shabab [Palestinian youths] have started to throw stones. The response when it happened was tear gas, bombs and bullets, many of which came over the walls into the zoo. Most of the animals in that area died after suffocating on the gas.”
From Sami’s office we walk to the museum complex, through a narrow arch and into an oval-shaped room. Bottles containing foetuses, stillbirths and a growth marked “cancer” sit on the walls. It’s an extraordinarily creepy exhibition.
Almost 100 exotic animals in various states of decay are crammed together in a dark and winding room. It’s stuffy and hot, but surprisingly doesn’t smell, and the heterogeneous mix of species shine in lurid yellow, orange and blue mood lighting.
On the ground pelicans, monkeys and a stuffed rabbit head mounted on a fake log commingle in suspended animation. Above, the heads of lions, gazelles and deer gaze down upon the other animals. Some pieces are complete while others have eyeballs missing, shoddy bone work and cavities with stuffing pouring from them.
The pinnacle of this disturbing display is a 15-foot stuffed Giraffe called Rudy, who stands at the entrance. “One night soldiers ran inside shooting," says the doctor. "It was dark and loud so the giraffe went crazy and started running around. He knocked his head against an iron bar and fell.” That blow wasn’t enough to kill the giraffe, at least not directly; Rudy ended up dying from a stroke as the powerful pressure required to move blood from the heart to the brain of a standing giraffe became too high. “When a giraffe lies down, it means it will die,” says Dr Khader.
Rudy and Brownie, the Romeo and Juliet of the taxidermy exhibition.
It gets worse. Rudy’s death sent his mate Brownie into a deep depression. “The female was 12 months pregnant at the time,” Dr Khader explains. “She saw the male after he had died, and she would cry all the time. She stopped eating and eventually the mother miscarried." One day, another tear gas canister was fired into the zoo. Brownie suffocated. She is now preserved alongside Rudy in the exhibition.
Today, as the fighting has retreated, the zoo is a refuge from the draconian security measures imposed on Qalqilya by the occupation. Outside the museum Palestinian families, summer camp groups and boisterous teenagers from all over the West Bank come to enjoy one of the few open spaces in urban Palestine, complete with a large playground, mini-amusement part, paddle boat pond and even some living zoo animals.
Children in the part of Qalqilya zoo where they keep living animals.
Dr Khader once described the zoo as “a small prison within a larger prison” and a drive through the Qalqilya district reflects this reality, the city and surrounding area have been subjected to some of the most severe aspects of the occupation. In 2003 the wall cut entire communities off from surrounding villages and land, decimating the local economy and clearly Qalqilya is unable to recover. The cumulative effect has been that in Qalqilya district unemployment is the highest in the West Bank and Israeli-imposed building restrictions have led to a population density greater than that of Gaza City.
Obviously, this means there isn't a crazy amount of money to throw at the zoo. This lack of funding and decreased attendance since the Second Intifada has forced the zoo to improvise. The ever-resourceful Dr Khader has been making his own syringes, and even constructed a DIY blowgun to administer tranquilisers. Clearly the doctor loves this place.
“The zoo is important for Palestinians," he tells me before I leave. "It’s a place for people to come together. Politics have no place here. One day this will just be a zoo, and you can come and write about the lions, not the intifada.”
Find more of Daniel's work at his website.
More visits to public exhibits: