Journalists informed the world this week that animals in the Gaza Zoo have become the latest victims of the war between Israel and Hamas. Israeli sources told CNN that “the military believes there may have been a number of Hamas rocket launchers in the area of the zoo, and that the zoo might have suffered collateral damage in strikes targeting those rocket launchers.” Members of a CNN crew saw “several charred and mangled metal cases that looked like destroyed rocket batteries.” The U.K.’s Daily Mail confirmed that “buckled rectangular metal rocket launch systems lay among the debris on the edge of the park. Some appeared still to be loaded with rockets.”
It is not a huge stretch of the imagination to assume that Hamas may have used the zoo as a tool in their efforts to further foment world opinion against Israel, just as they have done with the people living in Gaza.
Judging from photos of the zoo available online, the animals unfortunate enough to be held in the Hamas-built zoo lived far from ideal lives after being smuggled to Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. It appears that they were mostly caged in relatively small spaces with little opportunity to live as they would in their natural habitats. Now, due to the war, those that survive live in damaged enclosures, some with injuries or illness, with little food and water, often sharing their cages with their dead companions.
Unfortunately, very little can be done on an international level to help.
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a regional zoo association would typically be able to administer aid and raise funds to help any animals trapped in disasters or war zones. Regional associations exist in Europe, Asia, and North America, but there is no such association in the Middle East. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is aware of the situation in Gaza. It is trying to determine a way to proceed, but has been unable to decide upon a solution at this point. It is unclear if they would even be able to get to the zoo to help.
So, what can Israel do? Clearly, Israel has made efforts to warn the people of Gaza of forthcoming attacks through leaflets, phone calls and warning shots. Obviously, none of that would be effective for the animals at the zoo. Even if the animals could take a phone call or read the leaflets, there is nowhere for them to go. They cannot react to a warning shot. They cannot take refuge in a nontargeted area. They are stuck in their cages at the mercy of missiles.
Jewish law has a long history of compassion for and protection of animals. For example, Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed 3:48, discusses the fact that there is no difference in the emotional pain experienced by humans and nonhuman animals. Proverbs 12:10 states “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast…” And Exodus 23:5 discusses that when one sees the suffering animal of an enemy, she or he must help the animal and not leave it to suffer.
As much as Israel does to avoid indiscriminate human deaths, it should double those efforts where the animals, who have no political affiliation, no religious denomination, no choice in the matter, and no way out, are concerned. Humaneness and Jewish tradition require it. Some might say that the focus on protecting animals over a focus on protecting the people in a war zone is wrong – that human life always trumps that of nonhumans. But while the turmoil and death and injury on people in a war zone is unfortunate, the damage imposed on the animals is unconscionable.
The people of Gaza have a choice. They don’t have to be pawns in Hamas’ PR war. If they don’t like their circumstances, they can get rid of Hamas. They can decide they want a government that will coexist with its neighbors, rather than antagonize them. We have seen governments overthrown time and again. Humans can make that choice. Animals cannot.
Putting nonhuman animal welfare before human welfare has precedence in Jewish law. Talmud Berachot 40a establishes the Jewish tradition of making sure that one’s animals are fed before one eats. In addition, the Tur Chosen Mishpat discusses the prohibition of muzzling of an animal who is working and states that animals should be allowed to eat while they work.
Ronald Isaacs, in his book, Animals in Jewish Thought and Tradition, writes, “[t]here are probably no creatures that require more the protective divine word against the presumption of people than the animals which, like human beings, have sensations and instincts, but whose body and power are nevertheless subservient to people.”
So, again, what can be done? As part of the cease-fire negotiations, the rescue of the animals at the Gaza Zoo should be at the top of the list. This should be something with which everyone can agree. The animals have no agenda, other than to be left to live their lives free from hunger and thirst; free from discomfort; free from pain, injury, or disease; free to express normal behaviors; and free from fear and distress – the “Five Freedoms.”
Ideally, the animals that remain should be taken to sanctuaries where they can live in peace. At a minimum, those that remain should not be allowed to suffer the pains of a human war of which they take no part. Unfortunately, maybe the lucky ones are those that have passed on.
Alan S. Nemeth is an adjunct professor of law at both the American University Washington College of Law and the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he teaches Animal Law. In 2005, he founded the Animal Law Section of the Maryland State Bar Association and served as its initial chair.