JERUSALEM’S UNIQUE ZOO IS A LIVING BIBLICAL BESTIARY
The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, a concept inspired by the Prophets, is the only one of its kind in the world—a source of amazement not only to laymen like myself but, in even greater degree, to visiting zoologists and theologians. Here on thirty-two acres of the Holy Land’s rugged brown soil, the beasts and the birds mentioned in the Old Testament have been brought together. On their cages appear the Biblical quotations applicable to each creature. As you glance down from the contemptuous eyes of two splendid ostriches, both towering ten feet high, you read in Hebrew and English: “I am a brother to monsters and a companion to ostriches.” (Job 30:29) And where three of the most beautiful lions ever raised in captivity roar for their food, a placard quotes: “The lion hath roared—who will not fear?”(Amos 3:8)
The first glimpse of the Biblical Zoo may be something of a shock. This is not an exquisitely landscaped zoological garden such as you find in other cities. As you enter its creaking gate, crude paths lie ahead. All about them are massive boulders pockmarked by erosion. And among the rocks are growths of untended underbrush, clumps of twisted trees.
Yet this very crudeness is deliberately preserved because it establishes a proper mood for the zoo. Surely this is the way the Holy Land must have looked when some of these animals roamed its ancient hills, when some of these brilliantly plumed birds flew screaming from tree to tree. As you pass, they still scream at you—parrots and peacocks, magpies and ravens, just as they screamed at men in the years of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Today, they screech at more than 120,000 visitors a year.
The cages and enclosures of the leopards, elephants, jackals, tigers, wolves and the rest are scattered over low hilltops and shallow valleys. And though this land once lay within rifle-shot of the Jordanian border, and has been thrice fought over, these rolling acres devoted to savage beasts seem, paradoxically, the most peaceful and civilized spot on earth.
The fact that there are nearly 700 animals in the zoo appears to be a flagrant contradiction of the Bible; the Old Testament mentions only eighty-five. Prof. Aharon Shulov, who founded the Biblical Zoo twenty-seven years ago (and almost single-handedly kept it in existence through wars and upheavals), explained the discrepancy. It has grown, he said, out of the way scholars have translated Biblical terms. What, for instance, did Job mean when he spoke of “birds of prey”? Was he referring a eagles, to vultures? Most translators have relied on birds familiar in their own homelands. Thus in England, “birds of prey” might have been falcons and hawks. In other countries. they were visualized as buzzards, condors. In short, interpretation was often a matter of geography.
“So, to satisfy various authorities,” said Professor Shulov, “we try to have in the zoo a number of examples of the species the Bible may have meant.” Today there is a high enclosure in which buzzards and eagles and hawks and the rest share the branches of naked trees. Fortunately, these birds cannot read the sign that quotes their Biblical source in Leviticus: “They are abomination; the eagle and the ossifrage and the osprey and the vulture and the kite after his kind.”
Apes, too, have caused a problem. Solomon brought them into his kingdom together with parrots, peacocks and elephants. Now the zoo must deal diplomatically with those scholars who insist that Solomon’s apes were gorillas or orangutans; with other experts, equally eminent, who say they must have been spider monkeys or rhesus monkeys or even chimpanzees. As a result of such uncertainty, there are more than a dozen monkey cages in the Jerusalem zoo, each exhibiting a different species; and each has its supporters among theologians.
Three creatures mentioned in the Bible, however, may never be exhibited. The first is the fire-snorting, smoke-breathing dragon that doubtless never existed outside of poetry and legend. The second is the unicorn. If ever it did roam the earth, it has disappeared. As for the third, the behemoth, its closest known approximation is the hippopotamus or the rhinoceros. So the zoo keeps a rhinoceros and a hippo on the chance that some day one may definitely be identified as a behemoth. Apart from these three—dragon, unicorn and behemoth—the only serious omissions are the oryx, a form of antelope extremely hard to find, and Jonah’s whale. The whale, of course, is missing only because—as a keeper sadly put it—”We have great scientists in Israel, and we have great builders who have given Tel Aviv a thirty-floor skyscraper, and we have engineers who bring water from distant rivers into the desert. But no one has ever been able to build a tank big enough to keep a whale alive and happy in a place like this.” The zoo’s only water denizens are the crocodiles that doze in shallow, manmade pools and a few seals that frolic in deeper pools.
Of all the things that can be said about Jerusalem’s unique animal exhibit, perhaps the most significant is this: in the land of Biblical miracles, the very survival of this enterprise has been a miracle.
It went through its formative years without any financial help from the government, without any sizable donations from private sources. With World War II convulsing most of civilization, with Israel fighting to establish itself as a nation, with every available penny going into the feeding of Jewish escapees from Nazism, nobody could spare money for, of all things, a zoo. (The only measurable gift in those first years was one of fifteen pounds—worth about seventy dollars then—sent by an anonymous Englishman.)
How, then, were animals acquired? How was food bought to feed them? “Professor Shulov,” said one of his associates at the zoo, “had something better than money. He had ingenuity.” For the professor took advantage of a religious situation. The Holy Land’s Orthodox Jews eat nothing but kosher food that has been approved by their rabbis. Non-kosher meats and non-kosher fish (fish without scales) have always been condemned and destroyed. Going from one rabbi to another, Professor Shulov pointed out that the animals in the zoo had no kosher scruples. It might even be a mitzvoh (a blessing) to feed these captive creatures, for surely God had not put them on earth to starve. Why could not the discarded food be sent to the zoo?
The rabbis listened. They deliberated. No doubt they took into account the fact that a zoo of this kind deserved support because it brought modern people closer to an understanding of Biblical history; and certainly the land of the Bible owed it to posterity to dramatize and commemorate the Book in every possible way. In the end, the rabbis decreed that if Professor Shulov would send some of his students to carry the non-kosher food away from the Orthodox communities, he could have it all without cost.
And so, through the years, the zoo has enjoyed a source of free food. But this was the only easy triumph the professor ever knew. Every other step in building the zoo involved trouble.
This is something one would never guess, however, from his manner or appearance. A good-humored man in his late fifties, he is quiet, gray-haired, relaxed. He is Professor of Zoology at the Hebrew University. His lectures and his research duties as head of the university’s biological laboratories occupy much of his time. But promptly at seven every morning, he visits the zoo. Until nine, he makes his rounds of the cages, studying the condition of the animals, conferring with the keepers.
Today, there are twenty-seven of these keepers and their assistants; many of them—zoology students—are volunteers who work without pay. If Professor Shulov’s department at the university gives them extra credits for his service, no one complains. They give the zoo every spare hour they can find.
In the interest of historical accuracy, the professor makes it clear that this collection of animals did not begin as a memorial to the Bible. It was launched in 1940 as a teaching tool. At that time, Shulov was a young instructor in zoology. He was dismayed to discover that many of his students had no familiarity whatever with the beasts he mentioned when he lectured—even with those common to the Holy Land. His colleagues agreed that such ignorance was deplorable. So, with the university’s consent and with their own slim resources, the little group set about establishing an “Animal Life Corner.”
For no more than a pittance, they acquired a few desert beasts from Bedouin trappers. When the news of these transactions reached even the ears of remote nomads, it must have sounded like a bonanza. Arabs traveled to Jerusalem with live hyenas, jackals, even wolves. Possibly they consider the professor insane for wanting such creatures; neverthess, they came.
Professor Shulov hurriedly obtained a gift of chicken-wire from a Jerusalem builder, persuaded a number of his students to help build cages. Almost overnight, thirty exhibits were prepared. So many came to view them, many bringing children, that it was evident a zoo could be a popular attraction in Jerusalem.
But not with those who lived near the Animal Life Corner. They complained to the university. They complained bitterly to the civil authorities. How could they be expected to endure smells, and the howls of the wolves at night? “We couldn’t blame them,” Professor Shulov admits. “Those wolves and hyenas were worse than air-raid sirens.”
With the help of the British District Commissioner (Palestine was still a British Mandate), the zoo was moved to a site away from all residential areas. It might have prospered there. But within three years the government reclaimed the land for industrial development, and Professor Shulov’s volunteer students had to be called once more to move the cages.
This time they went to the historic slopes of Mount Scopus.
It was during these peripatetic years that the concept of a Biblical zoo caught the imagination of the professor and his friends. They went through the Old Testament line by line, seeking references to birds and beasts. For scholars it was a quest full of challenges: what, for instance, had David meant in Psalms (104:18) when he said, “The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats”? Was he speaking of the ibex or the aoudad? Or something quite different?
Fortunately, many of the allusions were as clear and specific as Jeremy’s “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” A leopard is leopard, nothing else. And no debates were caused by the Song of Songs’ “My beloved is like gazelle.”
Eventually, with all the birds and beasts listed, Professor Shulov was able to say, “Half out problem is solved.” The other half, of course, was the matter of acquiring animals without any money. Like so many scholars and idealists, Aharon Shulov has been affectionately called, “a dear man but a poor businessman”—because he has never seemed interested in enriching himself. Men of his kind are often too timid or too busy with their projects to seek personal gain. But they are seldom too timid or too busy to seek assistance for the causes in which they believe.
Thus the professor, not at all dismayed by the challenge that faced his enterprise, wrote letters to the zoos of the world’s largest cities. To all he explained his purpose. From all he solicited animal gifts. This Biblical Zoo, he pointed out, could be an inspiration to pilgrims everywhere who made their way to the Holy Land.
The response, though spread over several years, was remarkable. Live gifts arrived as they became available—beasts, birds, serpents. They came from zoos in Holland, Bulgaria, West Germany, Canada, the United States, England, Japan, India, Burma; from others in South America and Africa. In that sense, Jerusalem’s zoo can be called an international creation.
Individuals, too, made their contributions. The son of the Swedish Consul in Jerusalem, for example, took a vacation trip to the Sudan and returned with an assortment of African monkeys. They and their progeny fill their cages with endless animation; and they have prompted other Israelis who travel in Africa to seek out more specimens.
The climate of the Holy Land must be propitious for animal romance; the zoo’s rate of reproduction has always been incredibly high. For years, this has helped the professor to trade off cubs for all sorts of other beasts he wanted. The new beasts also hastened to reproduce. The lions, for instance, now have twenty-nine of their cubs resident in other zoos.
And so it appeared for a time that the old Animal Life Corner, having grown to over 200 exhibits on the slopes of Mount Scopus, was destined to become a permanent success.
But calamity struck. In 1956, Israel’s struggle for independence broke into open warfare. The zoo on Mount Scopus became part of a battlefield. Bullets whizzed through it, and wounded animals lay untended while they died. Those that escaped bullets began to starve, for it was impossible for men to approach their cages.
When at last United Nations forces mercifully entered the territory to stop the fighting, they found a heartbreaking sight at the zoo. Professor Shulov was urged to release the birds and to free all those harmless animals that could forage for themselves. As for the savage beasts that still lived, he was counseled to slaughter some and use their meat to feed the others. Because of military restrictions, it would, for a while, be impossible for food to reach the slopes of Mount Scopus.
Professor Shulov had no alternative. After this blackest day in the zoo’s history, only eighteen animals remained—out of more than 200. It was an even smaller collection than the Animal Life Corner had contained in 1940.
Nor was this the end of disaster. When territorial settlements had been agreed upon, Mount Scopus lay on the Jordanian side of No Man’s Land. What remained of the zoo belonged geographically to the Arab nation.
In desperation, the professor sought his government’s help. And though help was forthcoming, there were many issues more important than a zoo to be settled with the people of Jordan. As a matter of fact, it took fully three and a half years of negotiation—a time during which the patrolling UN police fed the few surviving beasts—before Jordan finally agreed to let Professor Shulov move his zoo back into Israel.
And so it went to its present site on the northwestern fringe of Jerusalem. There it had to start over again. But now its purpose was known to zoologists, and because of its idealistic nature, many hastened to help once more.
An enthusiastic American visitor, John Wilks, expressed his admiration for the project by writing a check for $5,000—the largest gift in the zoo’s records. This bonanza enabled the professor to acquire some animals he could not have obtained without funds—rare Barbary sheep, and even rarer Syrian bears—and it made possible the building of sturdier cages.
Eventually, the city of Jerusalem itself, no doubt recognizing the value of the zoo as a tourist attraction, began to grant it some financial support. This has grown to 70,000 Israeli pounds a year—about $18,000. And the Israeli Government, appreciating the cultural and religious significance of the undertaking, gives some 10,000 pounds. So for the first time the Biblical Zoo has a respectable budget; and because visitors pay a small entrance fee, many of its financial problems have disappeared.
There was a recent day when a pastor, pausing before a cage of wolves, solemnly asked a keeper: “How do you manage Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb’?”
The keeper smiled. “No problem,” he answered. “A new lamb every day.”
Some of the zoo’s exhibits, like the African roebucks and the Barbary sheep, are unmatched anywhere for sheer beauty and perfection. As for the Syrian bears, no more than a dozen of them exist in captivity. Thanks to the reproductive powers of the first two to arrive, the Biblical Zoo has seven of them.
They were acquired because of the verses in Proverbs (20:8-15): “As a roaring lion and a greedy bear, so is a wicked ruler over an indigent people.” But to watch these enormous, furry creatures at play, climbing boulders and slithering down with amazing agility, one is never reminded of greed or wickedness. Their sole objective seems to be fun. In time, they and their offspring may restore an almost extinct species to many zoos.
Until recently, in the case of “the great crocodile that lieth in the midst of his stream,” nobody had ever pretended that a crocodile could be anything else. But one day a visitor from Florida objected. He believed that Florida alligators were being snubbed. Back in Miami he must have done a bit of effective proselyting; for soon the Mayor of Miami, in a message to the Mayor of Jerusalem, offered to send the Biblical Zoo some Florida alligators.
“We hope,” one of the caretakers told me, “that they will also send some Florida snakes. We now have about a dozen varieties of serpents—everything from the giants of Africa and India to the tiny asp of our own Negev Desert. But we need as many species as we can get. For who can say what speciesit was that urged Eve to eat the apple?”
Deuteronomy‘sgazelle is a favorite among spectators. Even in captivity, the tiny creature remains one of the most graceful living things ever put upon this earth. Its slim legs, its lithe body, its ability to leap and turn in midair with a liquidity of motion seldom attained by any other animal, keep crowds staring in fascination.
Of course, the Bible frequently speaks of lambs and sheep and asses and other domesticated animals. These can hardly be caged. Neither can they be ignored. So they wander freely in an area where children may see them, pet them, even ride the donkeys.
No animal mentioned in the Old Testament has been overlooked. For as God said according to the Fiftieth Psalm: “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills; I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are mine.”
These verses hang on the zoo’s entrance gates for all the world to see. “After all,” Professor Shulov said, “they tell us why we have a zoo.” ◊