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The Dr. Doolittle of the West Bank

In a downtrodden West Bank town, one man dreams of creating a world-class zoo.

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The West Bank town of Qalqilya isn’t much more than a bump on the road to Nablus. Standing in the shadow of Israel, cordoned off by security measures, Qalqilya is home to 50,000 residents of the Palestinian Territories. Traffic lights often don’t work, there is no cinema, and few places for children to play.

But Qalqilya has a hidden gem. On a deserted road, behind a canopy of plane trees and a broken neon sign, stands the subject of Amelia Thomas’s bittersweet, moving book The Zoo on the Road to Nablus.

Thomas, a British journalist based in Tel Aviv (and an occasional correspondent for this paper), describes the Qalqilya zoo as a “small, scrubby domain, filled with ragtag animals” but there is no disguising the degree to which her heart has been won, both by the zoo and its guardian angel, the irrepressible Sami Khader, the only zoo veterinarian in the Palestinian Territories.

Times were not always so tough. The zoo opened in 1986 with help from Israeli experts. A year later came the first Palestinian intifada. Khader arrived in 2000, just before the second intifada. By the end of 2000, writes Thomas, “the zoo’s Israeli friends no longer came.” The zoo now limps along with limited supplies, inadequate funding, and little contact with the outside world.

But none of this squelches Khader. An optimist of the deepest hue, he insists, “Every country has a zoo.... Why shouldn’t we?” Others may see a small, downtrodden outpost, but he dreams of creating a world-class institution and throws himself body and soul into the effort.

Khader’s challenges are odd ones. Most zoo vets never lose a giraffe to gunshot, ferry monkeys past an armed checkpoint, or ponder breaking a military curfew to feed a rhino. Khader does it all, even as he improvises wildly to protect the creatures in his care.

Thomas does not overlabor the obvious, but Qalqilya’s residents have every reason to understand the feeling of being trapped in a cage. To read this book is to ache for all the residents of Qalqilya – human and animal alike. And yet, at the same time, Khader’s unquenchable, porpoise-like enthusiasm is an inspiration – a reminder that no matter how dark the room, there are those whose passions manage to generate light.

 

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