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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo

The idea of a Biblical zoo was natural to a city with the history and image that Jerusalem has acquired, but, as usual, one individual had to start the ball rolling. In this case, it was Aharon Shulov (1907-1997). Shulov was born in what is today Ukraine, ran afoul of the Bolshevik government because of Zionist activity, and, after a brief period in prison and exile, reached Palestine in 1926. Interested in animals from childhood, he became a lecturer in zoology at the very young Hebrew University of Jerusalem; after earning a doctorate in Naples, he returned to the Hebrew University, which became his permanent home. He also spent time in Egypt studying the care of animals in subtropical climates.

Shulov soon found the need for a zoo of some sort if only to give his students a chance to observe the animals they were studying. But, as he wrote many years later, he also wanted to do something to break down the invisible wall between the intellectuals who taught on Mt. Scopus and the populace below[1] (as late as 1951, the present writer, then a student at the Hebrew University, heard the jibe "The Hebrew University is eight hundred meters above the people."

In 1940 Shulov got his chance, and in September of that year he opened a small "animal corner" on Rabbi Kook Street near the center of the city. To his surprise, the opening day visitors, numbering about thirty, consisted largely of Arabs and "ultra-orthodox" Jews. Opposition by the neighbors, due to noise, smells, and perceived danger — the cages were poorly constructed and escapes were not unknown — forced the tiny zoo to relocate to a location a little more than an acre in size on Shmuel Hanavi Street a year later. Opposition was not lacking there either, but the zoo stayed in that location from 1941 until 1947, when it was offered space away from town on Mt. Scopus. However, because of the constantly worsening security situation, it turned out that the zoo had jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

Here a word must be said about the biblical orientation of the zoo. The primary effort would be to acquire animals mentioned in the Bible. However, the planners ran up against the fact that many names of animals and birds in the Bible are of uncertain meaning. Even the frequently mentioned nesher, usually translated "eagle," is taken by some to mean "vulture." Sometimes there is only a small difference between biblical and extra-biblical animals, such as in the case of the namer (usually translated "leopard," based on his inability to change his spots [see Jer13:23]) and bardelas, taken to mean "panther" and not found in ancient Hebrew literature before the Talmud.

Furthermore, many animals of the cat family have long been extinct; some say that the lion has been extinct in Palestine for a thousand years. These had to be imported at considerable expense and trouble. Stricter hunting laws have reversed this trend, and leopards have again been sighted in sparsely inhabited regions of southern Israel.[2] In any case. the zoo authorities decided long ago that they had to go beyond the biblical sphere and, like other zoos the world over, do their part to preserve endanged species. Biblical animals are not housed separately, but for many years have been identified by a relevant biblical verse in Hebrew and English.

To return to the history of the zoo: the Mt. Scopus period lasted from 1947 to 1950, and it proved to be the zoo's most difficult time. In 1948, the siege of Jerusalem left little food even for the human population. The zoo caretakers were reduced to hunting stray dogs near garbage dumps to feed them to the carnivorous animals. Many of these perished, and the non-dangerous species had to be released. The Israel-Jordan armistice of 1949 restricted access to Mt. Scopus and made the maintenance of the zoo there impractical; with UN help, the animals were moved down into the city in 1950. Shulov reports that at one time he was down to two wolves, a hyena, a lion, and a leopard.[3]

The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was destined to remain in its new location in the Romema neighborhood near the entrance to the city for over forty years. It was administered by a non-profit corporation in which the Hebrew University, the municipality of Jerusalem, and two government ministries (Tourism and Education) were represented.[4] But the zoo had little money, was considered inferior to the zoos of Tel Aviv and Haifa, and its main claim to distinction was its orientation to biblical animals. There were times when Shulov, who had a professorship at the Hebrew University, served as director without pay. One tour guide described it as a rather dismal place, with empty cages, largely visited by the ultra-orthodox population with their many children in tow.

Better times came to the zoo through the Jerusalem Foundation, founded by Mayor Teddy Kollek, who took office in 1965. The Jerusalem Foundation is a unique institution, a non-profit corporation that works closely with the city.[5] The Jerusalem Foundation identifies and supports projects needed by the city for which sufficient public funds are not available; it tries to match them with potential donors. Of course, there is never a lack of such projects. Kollek was particularly interested in increasing green space in a city with too little of it, and he found many donors for parks and playgrounds. He also tried to make sure that Jerusalem's Arabs were not discriminated against in the allocation of funds.[6]

We assume that his plan to make the biblical zoo a state-of-the-art institution and to move it to a new location as part of the development of southwest Jerusalem could not be carried out for a long time because of the enormous expense. Around 1990, the Tisch family of New York came to the rescue. The zoo was closed in 1991, and it reopened in its new location in the Manahat section in 1993 as a modern zoo with animals in their natural habitats as much as possible. Today it is called in Hebrew "Gan ha-hayot ha-tenakhi bi-Yerushalayim al shem mishpahat Tisch" and in English "The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem." Presumably the word "Biblical" in the English title would have made it too complicated.

The zoo is spread over sixty-two acres, with an artificial lake and an information center in a building meant to resemble Noah's Ark. In general, there is no contact between the public and the animals, who are behind impassable barriers. But there is a small "children's zoo" where animals can be fed, preferably with food provided locally. Another section with some public contact is the lemurs' area — these small primates come close to the public and can be petted. At the time of writing (August 2006), the admission fee is sixty-six shekels (about US$15) for adults, half price for children and seniors. This is not cheap, especially for large families, but neither is it considered unduly expensive.

Avraham Greenbaum

Acknowledgment
I thank the administration of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem) for providing information.

Notes

[1] Aharon Shulov, The Leopard (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Zoo Educational Series, 1980), 13.

[2] Shulov, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: 40 years of the Biblical Zoo (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, 198l), 4-5. (Hebrew)

[3] Shulov, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, 14.

[4] Hatsi yovel la-gan ha-tenakhi Romema-Yerushalayim 1950-1975 (Semi-jubilee of the Biblical Zoo Romema - Jerusalem; Jerusalem: Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, 1975), 32.

[5] Ira Sharkansky, "Mayor Teddy Kollak and the Jerusalem Foundation: Governing the Holy City," Public Administration Review 44 (1984): 299-304.

[6] Tal Shachar, "Building Jerusalem from its Foundations," Eretz Magazine (Spring 1990): 76-77.

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Citation: Avraham Greenbaum, " The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=579

 
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