The story of the coming into being of the Tel Aviv Zoo consists of two separate stories with a merge as a happy ending.
In 1935 Rabbi Mordecai Schornstein, formerly the chief Rabbi of Copenhagen and an animal lover, fled from Nazi-occupied Europe to British Mandatory Palestine. He purchased a number of animals in Italy while travelling to his new homeland. He opened a pet shop on 15 Shenkin Street and named it ‘Gan Hayot’ (‘zoo’ in Hebrew). The birds and mammals in the store soon became a local attraction, and in 1938 he founded a zoo on 65 Hayarkon Street. His hobby became an annoyance to the neighbours, especially after a pair of lions and tigers was donated to the zoo. Due to pressure of these zoo’s neighbours, a new compound was built for the zoo in the northern outskirts of the city, which was at that time sparsely populated. In November 1939, the zoo was relocated to this new location and was opened to the public. It became a source of pride for the residents of this first modern Jewish city. Several animals from around the world as well as mammals and birds from the local region were to be found in the zoo’s exhibits, including a small aquarium. The zoo was quite successful in breeding flamingos in captivity, one of few in the world at the time. As was published in the Journal of Zoo Animal Medicine, in 1970.
Originally located in an unhabited area of the city, the zoo got surrounded by residential buildings and was close to the city hall, while Tel Aviv expanded. In 1979, the Tel Aviv municipality decided to relocate the municipal zoo. This led to a merge of the municipal zoo and the Zoological centre of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan. On the deserted site near city hall the Gan Hair up-market shopping center was built. A statue commemorating Rabbi Dr. Schornstein was placed at the entrance to a little garden to the rear of the building, on Hadassah Street.
The Zoological centre of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan was established in the Ramat Gan national park. In the 1960s, the manager of the national park, Zvi Kirmeier, and Ramat Gan Mayor Abraham Krinitzi decided to expand the park’s small zoo. They contacted a wildlife agent in Kenya and began to investigate possibilities. After Krinitzi’s death, his successor, Israel Peled, enthusiastically continued to work with Kirmeier on the plan. They even went on a safari in Africa to collect animals for the park. They returned from their expedition with 17 animals and a contract for 200 additional animals to be brought to Israel. In 1973, the animals arrived and the new expanded Zoological centre opened to the general public in 1974 as an African animal park. When the municipal zoo had to be relocated, facilities were built for a zoo in the middle of this African zoological park. In 1980, the zoo in the city centre was closed and the animals moved from the center of Tel Aviv to the more hospitable, humane surroundings of the Ramat Gan Safari.
And so a zoological African park, with a modern zoo in the middle, came into existence which now contains the largest animal collection in the Middle East, some 1,600 animals, representing over 200 species in a park of 100 hectare. In the African savannah park the animals live in conditions similar to their natural habitats. The combined African park and zoo became popularly known as the “Safari”. One of the unique aspects of the African park is that a wide variety of species share the same area and can be seen interacting the way they would in the wild. On the road that winds through the open land of the park visitors can drive their own car and observe and enjoy the animals. But when visitors arrive by public transport a minibus will take them around the park.
Most striking is that in the centre of the most densely populated part of Israel, this urban jungle, an open, natural area can be found where zebra, antelopes, and hippopotamuses roam and interact.
The zoo section is home to many animals that are native to Israel and the Middle East, especially endangered species. One example is the sand cat (Felis margarita), a wild cat that is native to Israel and Jordan. As the sand cat is an endangered species the Zoological park of Ramat Gan formed a breeding pool with other Israeli zoos, and is breeding them in cooperation with the Israel Zoo Association and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). Feasibility of reintroduction of the cats into the wild is under investigation. But as the fox and red wolf population in the Arava has grown significantly it may not be safe to return the small cats to their natural habitat.
In the zoo also animals from other parts of the world can be found, including a family of gorillas and two herds of elephants, African as well as Asian. The pachiderms have adapted well to the Israeli climate, which is reflected in the excellent breeding results. Therefore, Israeli-born elephants can now be found at zoos worldwide.
Improvements to the zoo’s facilities is on-going policy. The vision is to get all the animals out of cages, and a change is being made to open, more natural enclosures. Progress is being made, but unfortunately is not as good as could be wished for, because available funding is limited.
The Safari participates in 25 international programs for endangered species. It is partner in both breeding and reintroduction programmes and in research projects for such animals.
(Source: website Tel Aviv zoo; Nostalgia Sundays – Tel Aviv Zoo by Rachel Neiman, weblog Israelity; Eretz magazine, article on the Zoological Centre of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan by Heidi J. Gleit)