The Ingathering of (Non-Human) Exiles: The Creation of the Tel Aviv Zoological Garden Animal Collection, 1938-1948

Elia Etkin. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 35, Issue 1, March 2016.

I hope you will not mind my troubling you with such a paltry matter, but it is just such things as worrying about a Zoo in the midst of all the trouble that keep our minds off things.

— Yehudah Nedivi, Tel Aviv’s town clerk, to Major R. Broadhurst, the Deputy Officer Commanding the Arab Legion of Amman, in request for peacocks owned by the Legion, January 23, 1940

As usual with the Yishuv in general and Tel-Aviv in particular, the thicker and darker the clouds which seem to gather over our skies the more determined are the efforts to forge ahead no endeavor and no achievement being considered too small and to deserve relegation or postponement to better times.

— Yehudah Nedivi to Sir David Ezra of Calcutta, in request for Galapagos tortoises from his private collection, February 1947


Tel Aviv’s zoo, inaugurated in December 1938, was the first zoo in Palestine and, for several years, the only site of its kind in the country. It was built on the town’s northeastern edge in an orchard purchased by the municipality a decade earlier. In the above quotations, Tel Aviv’s tireless town clerk, Yehudah Nedivi, belittles his efforts to obtain animals for this zoo, aware of their peculiarity in times of war and distress. And surely, troubling one’s mind with zoo animals might be accused of misdirected exertion. But, as I will argue here, the efforts to establish Tel Aviv’s zoological garden and build a respectable animal collection in it are not negligible at all. And the introduction of new animals to the Tel Aviv zoological garden, combined with contemporary press images of these acquisitions, is part of the complex story of the formation of cultural institutions in Mandate Palestine, involving colonial and imperial networks, on the one hand, and Zionist-national ambitions, on the other. My analysis will show that in spite of the centrality of Zionist enthusiasm in driving the establishment of the Tel Aviv zoo, its importance cannot be reduced to its relation to Zionist ideology. The zoo also mediated other social and cultural needs and aspirations, and was the product of its specific historical colonial-imperial circumstances. The creation of the animal collection at the zoo reveals another aspect of the British contribution to the development of cultural endeavors in Palestine.

The historiography of Jewish communities of Palestine during the British Mandate has undergone significant change during the last three decades. Recent studies in the field have assimilated some insights and methods of cultural history and have examined issues other than politics and formal organizational activity. For more than a decade, scholarship has focused on social and cultural history, the culture of everyday life and the urban sphere (especially of Tel Aviv). Nevertheless, a few crucial cultural aspects still remain overlooked, among them the attitude toward and knowledge about nature and natural life, and the function of animals in the nation-building project. The present article, which is a first attempt to write the history of the Tel Aviv zoo and its animal collection, seeks to rectify the neglect of these topics in the research. It will integrate some of the insights provided by the developing interdisciplinary field of animal studies, and specifically zoo history, into the body of research on the urban cultural history of Mandate Palestine.

It is well known that the Zionist ideology and foundation of new Jewish life in Palestine encompassed a rupture from life in the diaspora. Zionist thinkers such as Max Nordau and Arthur Ruppin wrote on the need to replace the passive, feminine, and decadent “Old Jew” with an active, vital, physical, and masculine “New Jew.” Aside from the discourse advocating the “New Jew,” some practices were adopted in order to form a new and different human type, including new hygiene practices and physical outdoors activities. One key element in this new human type was nature, which was perceived as a way to establish (or reestablish) the connection between Jews and their homeland, and as a tool for forming the “civilized human being” as well. The Tel Aviv zoo was an urban site that was considered a gateway to wildlife and a means to reintroduce biblical animals to Palestine (even though it was not formally defined as a “biblical zoo” like the one opened in Jerusalem in 1940), and thus a site for national education, recreation, and scientific research. The visitors, especially the young ones, were supposed to experience direct contact with the natural world and to learn how to pronounce the names of its inhabitants in Hebrew. The zoo’s managers and local newspaper reporters employed a discourse associating the zoo with the national endeavor. Such rhetoric of national revival was commonly used to describe a variety of cultural activities (such as the foundation of theaters, museums, libraries, and orchestras), prompting the scholarly tendency to view all cultural activities and enterprises as nationally motivated and executed. Yet the zoo also expressed the European, urban, modern nature of the Zionist project, and the wish to create Tel Aviv as a modern Western metropolis. Retelling the history of the zoo by reconstructing the actual practices of animal importation to it reveals a more complex picture of the forces in its formation. While the language used to describe the zoo associated it with Zionist national regeneration, the formation of the collection was rooted in colonial-imperial circumstances. This duality will be demonstrated here by a close examination of the formation of the zoo animal collection.

Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia will help highlight the connections between this zoo, its animal collection, and the community that established it. According to Foucault, heterotopia refers to an actual cultural-social space (such as theater and cinema) that is separated and distinct from other spaces, yet holds a key to understanding the society that constituted it. He describes some heterotopias, such as museums and libraries, as characterized by accumulation. These are a gathering of different spaces or times in a single place, by amassing objects from distant sites or periods. Foucault himself mentions that zoological gardens are the modern form of the royal garden, in which objects from a variety of places around the world were accumulated within a single space. Both of these aspects of heterotopian accumulation—accumulation of space and of time—can be identified in the Tel Aviv zoo. The assemblage of space is reflected in the variety of animals from all over the world, a fundamental feature of all zoos. The accumulation of time is uniquely expressed in the Tel Aviv zoo because of the connection made between the zoo animals of the present and animals in biblical times. Emphasizing these two aspects and placing them in a historical context, I will examine the Tel Aviv zoo as a case study in the formation of a heterotopia. In the case of Tel Aviv a gap can be discerned between the national discourse describing the accumulation and the actual colonial, imperial circumstances that were involved in it.

The social function of heterotopia in relation to the space outside of it is also of importance here. According to Foucault this function can serve in two opposite ways: it supplies a “space of illusion,” which makes all other spaces appear as illusions, but it also functions as compensation—a real space that is perfect and organized, in contrast to the “messy, ill-constructed, and jumbled” space outside of it. Representations of the animal collection at the Tel Aviv zoo in the contemporary media helped realize both these roles. On the one hand, they articulated Zionist fantasies that could not be realized in Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s—Palestine as a place of asylum for a growing population of Jewish refugees, denied entry because of economic and political conditions. At the same time the zoo was an actual space that existed on the edge of Tel Aviv. It was planned and organized in ways that appeared to contradict the chaotic life of the city that was built rather rapidly and in an ad hoc manner. During the Arab revolt, the Second World War, conflict with the British, and the financial crises, the zoo adhered (as much as possible) to its daily routine.

Images of Importation

The Tel Aviv zoo was established three decades after the foundation of the “First Hebrew City.” According to municipal records the population of the city at that time numbered approximately 160,000. The zoo initially developed from the animal collection owned by Mordechai Shorenshtein, who emigrated from Copenhagen in 1935, accompanied by animals he purchased in Italy on his way to Palestine. Following his arrival he opened an animal shop on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv and, since sales did not suffice, he also charged for visits as well. His inventory grew after his participation in the Orient Fair of 1936, and his shop became too small for the animal collection. Shorenstein and several other civic activists approached the municipality, armed with a petition of over 1,100 signatures, demanding land for a zoo. As a result, a lot on the city’s frontier was leased to the newly established Society of Friends of the Tel Aviv Zoo, and Shorenshtein’s collection of parrots, monkeys, snakes, tigers, and eventually lions, was transferred into the custody of that society. Initially the entire zoo covered about 0.9652 square miles (2.5 square kilometers). In time it grew to 5.5984 square miles (14.5 square kilometers), though it was still relatively small and crowded, and the animals were densely packed and deprived of any semblance of life in the natural world.

The heterotopian accumulative nature of the Tel Aviv zoo is manifest in the ways in which it was portrayed—the animals’ representation extended beyond the material circumstances of their importation and living conditions, and received symbolic meanings. Animals arriving and residing at the zoo were represented in the local press anthropomorphically. These animals, which visitors to the zoo could visit and relate to, were associated with specific local concepts of human immigration, assimilation, and the indigenous or native. For example, human concepts of ideological, voluntary migration were often applied to the arrival of captive animals to the Tel Aviv zoo. Of course not all human immigration was ideological, as recent scholarship has emphasized, as it was often driven by economic, familial, or social conditions. Yet in this case it was the language created to describe immigration as ideologically motivated and manifesting the value of activism, as opposed to the alleged passivity of the diaspora Jew, that was applied to the animals. The public journalistic discourse often described animals with terms taken from the Zionist vocabulary, such as olim (new immigrants), Sabras (the new generation of Jews born in Palestine), and halutzim (pioneers).

The zoo’s animal collection as a whole also had a specific symbolic function related to the Zionist project of kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles). The zoo, as a collection of animals from all around the world correlated with an aim originally destined for the human ideological project. Although in practice Jewish immigration to Palestine had selective features based on economic and physical capabilities, since the first Zionist congress the “ingathering of the exiles” had been presented as one of the main goals of the Zionist movement. This principle appeared in newspaper reports describing the formation of the zoo animal collection. For example, the subtitle of an article published in Ha-Boker newspaper following the opening of the zoo declared that the plan was to gather together all the animals of the land and those “exiled” from it. The zoo’s function as a heterotopia may also explain how the creation of an animal collection was interpreted as an imagined route by which the Zionist project of human return could also be fulfilled. At a time when restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine became rigid, and European Jewry was being exterminated by the Nazis, the arrival of new animals to the collection was greeted in anthropomorphic terms.

A critical usage of the concept of the “ingathering of the exiles” appeared in Ha-Galgal (a newspaper for immigrants written in easy Hebrew) of September 13, 1944:

In front of you is a vastly different kind of “kibbutz galuyot,” but not in the sense of the ingathering of homecoming exiles [shavei golah], but rather in the sense of the ingathering of captive exiles [shvuyei golah]… for this zoo is captivity [shevi]: captivity and exile [shevi ve-golah] for its inhabitants. And not just for those who were brought to it from far away, but for those who are native to the land as well, real “Sabras,” those who were incarcerated in these narrow cages and will no longer see the hills of the Galilee or the splendor of the Jordan River, from where they were brought posthaste to this orchard in Tel Aviv… Many of the animals that made “aliyah” to here are “Sabras.” And numerous and diverse are these “aliyot.” Some came here long ago, others belong to the “new aliyah” and only recently abandoned the expanses of nature, or their old cage in another distant zoo, and were brought here. And there is also “internal immigration” [aliyah pnimit, i.e., increase by reproduction]….

The author uses the terminology related to human immigration to Palestine that his readers were quite familiar with, treating the animals as a community of immigrants, with different immigration statuses. Playing on the phonetic similarity between the words shivah (return) and shevi (captivity), he notes the difference between human and animal immigration: while Jews are set free by immigration, returning to their homeland and living an independent life, the animals are still imprisoned and kept far from their place of origin. Ha-Galgal describes the zoo’s animals in the anthropomorphic terms of the Zionist discourse on immigration, yet conveys an awareness of the difference between humans and animals, using the human discourse to emphasize and criticize the unjust conditions of captivity.

As in the above quotation, the term “Sabra”—literally: prickly pear—was another Zionist image that was applied to the animal collection. The zoo’s director, Baruch Goffer, chose to describe Tedi, a leopard cub, as a “Sabra,” thus referring not only to the fact that Tedi was born in Palestine but also to his disposition, since the Sabra is characterized by oppositions: he may be both tough and gentle, aggressive and friendly, assertive and considerate.

Discourse on the animals’ migration was rooted in the discourse on exile and return to the land of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael, yet it was not restricted to biblical animals native to the land. Many writers and publicists saw the elephant as a necessary addition to the Tel Aviv zoo, which would transform it into a “real zoo.” In 1945 a fundraising event aimed exclusively at purchasing an elephant was held, and the first elephant, named Bango, arrived at the zoo in November 1946. It had cost approximately 4,000 liras and had been captured in Sudan. It was escorted to Haifa Port by its two captors and from there was conveyed to the Tel Aviv zoo. The children’s weekly Davar li-Yeladim, associated with the Labor movement’s Davar, reported: “Indeed it was a ‘historical’ night, because since the days of the Hasmoneans when the Greeks brought elephants to fight the Hebrew warriors, there has been no elephant in our land.” Another article published in the private Jewish daily, the Palestine Post, described its arrival with these words: “He fits into the Palestine pioneer pattern because he came the hard way. Like so much else in this country, Bango is something out of a dream.” The article described the efforts made in order to import an elephant to the zoo, making Bango part of the project of fulfilling the national vision.

In reporting Bango’s arrival some writers chose to mention the Peel Commission of August 1936, established following the Arab revolt. The reference was based on the phonetic similarity between the title of the commission, named after its head, Lord Robert Peel, and pil, the Hebrew word for elephant. One of the main conclusions of the commission’s report was that Jewish immigration to Palestine should be limited, depending on economic capacity and the Yishuv’s ability to provide for the newcomers. The elephant’s arrival was an opportunity to criticize British policy. Bango’s legal immigration provided a platform to bemoan all the humans whose only path to Palestine was through illegal channels, as hinted in a report in Ha’aretz on the upcoming arrival of the elephant:

Soon a completely “legal” new immigrant [oleh hadash] will be arriving in our city, he is not, God forbid, a ma’apil [illegal immigrant], but he is huge … maybe we shall establish a hospitality committee to take care of our guest or renew the “Peel Commission”…. And although the days are not so pleasant, the children, along with the animals and the birds, have come out in song and dance and we will all hear and see their voices.

Bango’s arrival at the zoo was also depicted in cartoons, such as one entitled “Privileged Passenger”, in which Bango is seen riding in the back of a truck at night. The elephant looks as if he is trying to steal his way into Palestine, but hands a note saying “curfew pass” to three soldiers dressed in Scottish kilts, representing the British military. The cartoon refers to the severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and the daily reality of limits on free movement in Palestine due to the deteriorating security situation. It is both critical and ironic—the elephant received a pass and immigrated legally, while many Jewish refugees were not able to enter Palestine that way. Yet it is noteworthy that by referring solely to human events, this image disregards the fact that the elephant had been brought from the wild and was entering the zoo to live in captivity.

The story of the zoo’s lions is an excellent illustration of the correlation made between the lives of humans and zoo animals in Palestine. The lion, which has an honorable place in Judaic tradition, appearing in many biblical tales and blessings and also symbolizing the kingdom of Judea, was perceived as representing the connection of the Jewish people to the historic Land of Israel and was used as a “symbolic bridge” connecting the Jewish past and present. The symbolic meanings attributed to the zoo’s lions were reflected in their individual stories, allowing the lion’s image to communicate ideas not just about the rebirth of the Jewish people but also about the national body-politic and the ideal Yishuv family as well. This imagery was modeled on idealized families of animals and an idealized community of beasts.

The first pair of lions to arrive—Gibor (lit. hero) and Tamar (a biblical female name)—were given to the zoo prior to its establishment, in the summer of 1937. They were temporarily housed in an apartment used by Shorenshtein on Yarkon Street, before being transferred to the zoo when it opened. A third lioness, Dolly joined in 1942. Reports in the press about the lions were replete with ideas related to the return of the Jewish people to its homeland. The lions’ story also supplied a framework for discussing the rebirth of a native Jewish people in the land of Israel. Tamar, the older lioness, gave birth several times, but her cubs did not survive. Her pregnancies and the births of her cubs were obsessively covered by the local press, and the reports hinted at something much more significant than the issue of fertility in the lion’s cage. The lioness giving birth was conceived as symbolizing the birth of native offspring, and thereby the renewal of the exiled Jewish people in their homeland. In an article describing the birth of one of Tamar’s cubs, the writer noted that “the lion’s roar sounds as if it had undertaken to voice the feelings of the bereaved Jewish people that wants to live and makes every effort to continue its existence.” Following her third failure to give birth to healthy offspring, an article in Ha-Boker newspaper, associated with the liberal party, the General Zionists, compared the Jewish condition in Palestine with the lion’s condition:

A lion is always a lion, and even in its tenth generation does not become a slave and does not forget its nature…. We, too, my friends, and tens of generations before us, were born in lands with a climate different from the climate of our land and were enslaved from birth, and nevertheless the memory of that climate and the freedom that can only be fully realized in this place, where we live, remained alive in our body.

The author goes on to suggest that the lioness’s captivity is the reason why she is unable to conceive healthy cubs. Pointing to the difference between the condition of the Jewish people and that of the lions, the author notes that while the Jewish people returned to its homeland, to live freely, the lions are still enslaved. He proposes to solve the problem by returning the lions to their natural environment, which may enable successful reproduction.

An article in Ha’aretz on January 20, 1940, entitled “Tamar Had Hard Labor,” alluded to Genesis 35:16: “And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor.” This title anthropomorphizes Tamar’s labor in terms of one of the most important and dramatic biblical birth stories, the birth of Benjamin, the second son of Jacob and his beloved second wife Rachel, during their journey back to the land of Canaan, Benjamin was born soon after God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and promised him the Land of Israel. Rachel, who had been barren for many years, died while giving birth to Benjamin. This intertextual choice creates a link between Rachel, one of the four mothers of the Jewish nation, and Tamar the lioness, and associates the birth of the cub with the story of Rachel and Jacob’s return journey, and the divine promise it holds.

The first lion cub successfully bred at the zoo was Dolly’s. In August 1942 Dolly gave birth to Laish, a healthy female cub. Baruch Goffer wrote about this occasion:

It was a holy day for us. We felt the beat of the wings of history above our heads. The lions are not foreign in our land. The bible is full of the lion’s glory, a symbol of power and heroism. However with the destruction and depletion of the land that followed the many wars, the tracks of the lion were lost, and for two thousand years there was no trace of it in our land. Now this relation has been reestablished and the lion’s family grows and develops.

This narrative makes the story of the lions and the story of the Jewish people seem part of the same historical course, which includes ownership of a land, exile, and return. Humans and lions appear as part of the same process of resurrection. The birth of lion cubs therefore becomes a symbol of the success of the Jewish project of national revival. An article in Ha’aretz on August 23 on a visit to the zoo described Laish’s arrival as if she had been born into a bereaved family: “This is also a song. A song of a little desert family living within Tel Aviv. Congratulations to her and to us as well. Because I have a feeling that with the birth of Laish a great blessed change is going to come to the great desert on the border of Egypt.”

The press’s constant preoccupation with the lives and births of lions seems to reflect the pronatalist character of the Jewish Yishuv, which, in the effort to create a new national community, became almost obsessed with demography. Concern with population growth via immigration as well as birth intensified as information on the mass destruction of European Jewry reached Palestine. The lioness became a model of the national mother, and the miscarriage or death of a cub aroused feelings of disappointment and failure.

Ironically the zoo project, which was based on the captivity of animals, was entangled in a discourse on the liberation of the Jewish people. Constituting a zoo was part of establishing Tel Aviv as a modern metropolis, manifesting the independence of the “First Hebrew City.” The discourse on establishing a zoo and representation of the zoo’s animals in the local press were deeply rooted in the national discourse. The occasional references to the animals’ pain and hardship were made mainly in relation to Jewish suffering, and voices condemning the concept of animal captivity were rare.

Having considered how representations of the zoo collection were entangled in Zionist national-ideological discourse, I will now examine the actual importation of the animals, and the diplomatic and military networks that enabled it.

Creating an Animal Collection in Tel Aviv

One of the biggest concerns of the newly opened zoo, besides fundraising, was enlarging the animal collection. The zoo’s managers and the municipality’s representatives who assisted them displayed great resourcefulness in obtaining animals for the zoo. Creating such a collection depended on different forms of trade such as acquisition, exchange, and barter. Hence, the importation of animals to the Tel Aviv zoo cannot be understood in isolation from the imperial economic context in which it was rooted and formed.

New animals arrived at the zoo from other zoos in territories under British control at the time, such as India, Egypt, and Sudan. In October 1941, for example, a large delivery of animals from the Cairo zoo arrived at Tel Aviv, including pairs of eagles, ostriches, storks, and pelicans, along with flamingoes, antelopes, and deer. This operation was made possible as a result of a visit to Palestine by Kadri Bey, secretary to the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and director of the Cairo zoo. The pair of lions given to the zoo two years before had also been a gift from Bey, on the condition that their transport expenses would be paid by the Tel Aviv zoo.

The managers made efforts to locate potential zoo animals wherever these could be found, including outside of other zoos. In a letter, addressed to Kaimaken Y. Caspi of the Arab Legion and the Transjordan Frontier Force (TJFF), Nedivi asked for his help in importing animals from Syria and Turkey, such as wolves and bears. Another letter from September 1940, describes the arrival of a peacock at the zoo. Nine months earlier Nedivi had been informed that soldiers of the TJFF cultivated such peacocks for recreation, and he had asked the deputy of the Arab Legion for a male peacock, to join the female that was already at the zoo. The peacock transaction was made with the help of Lady MacMichael, the wife of High Commissioner Harold MacMichael. Seeking new zoo animals extended beyond the boundaries of imperial control in the Middle East. A letter, written in March 1939 by E.C. Hughes, the Australian Government Commissioner to Egypt, refers to a request made by Nedivi during Hughes’ visit to Tel Aviv, following the latter’s pledge to help import animals from Australia. Expressing his enthusiasm for assisting the Tel Aviv zoo, Hughes wrote, “I may say there are many Jewish citizens of Australia who take a keen interest in Palestine and particularly your city and would be glad to assist in increasing the interest of your Zoo.” Following this letter Tel Aviv’s mayor, Israel Rokach, sent Hughes a list of Australian animals that the zoo wished to acquire, among them kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, wombats, emus, cassowaries, and kiwis. On April 21, Hughes replied that there would be a delay in the delivery due to “the difficulty [that] lies in arranging freight and transport of the animals or birds from Australia, and in case of parrots their entry is strictly forbidden in Egypt.” Eventually this whole initiative foundered. But this did not bring an end to endeavors to introduce Australian animals to the zoo. Eight years later, on July 11, 1947, Ha-Mashkif, the Revisionist Party newspaper, reported on a significant animal transport arriving from Australia, including four pairs of kangaroos, three pairs of black swans, Tasmanian devils and more. This time the animals’ acquisition was part of a barter that was executed by General Thomas Blamey of the Australian army.

On January 1, 1939, shortly after the zoo had opened, an advertisement appeared in the Jewish Advocate, a local Jewish community journal in Bombay, India, requesting public donations to the Tel Aviv zoo. The advertisement sought community members who would be willing to purchase animals and deliver them to the zoo, promising that travel expenses would be covered by the zoo. At the bottom of that advertisement the newspaper’s editor appealed to Sir David Ezra, “who could do very much to help this new Society.” Ezra, a wealthy Calcutta Jew from a family originating from Iraq, was a key figure in his community, a businessman and the head of the Jewish Relief Association, an aid organization founded in 1934 to assist European immigrants. He was also an amateur naturalist and owned a collection of animals that included rare birds, swans, and turtles. Ezra responded to the public plea and throughout the zoo’s first decade donated numerous animals, including parrots, black swans, and Galapagos tortoises. Some of these animals were part of his private collection and others he bought especially for the zoo. The Jewish and Zionist elements of Ezra’s donations are surely apparent, yet his contributions also depended on the British imperial transportation networks that connected Palestine and India. In January 1944 the zoo’s managers also approached Natan Marian, a Jewish lawyer who had represented Haile Selassie during his exile in Jerusalem in 1936. Following the East Africa Campaign (which was led mainly by British armed forces), Selassie had returned to Ethiopia and appointed Marian as a judge there. The zoo’s managers hoped that Marian would utilize his proximity to the royal court in order to obtain some rare local species for the zoo. In the cases of both Ezra and Marian, and to some extent Hughes, the call for aid was rooted in national empathy but could not be executed without the facilities of the imperial power. Attempts to import new animals to the zoo—even though they were not always officially initiated—would not have been possible without the British imperial presence that created networks of diplomatic, commercial, financial, and military affiliations and collaborations.

In addition to imports from zoos across the British Empire and gifts from Jewish philanthropists or various armed forces (a topic discussed below), the zoo’s managers also cooperated with zoos across Europe, including the Zagreb and Warsaw zoos. These connections were maintained via correspondence between zoo managers as well as consular representatives in Palestine, and were disrupted by the Second World War, especially in the case of the Warsaw zoo. On April 18, 1939, just a few months after the opening of the zoo, contact was made with the director of the Polish zoo, Dr. Jan Żabiński, and a Palestinian jackal was offered as a gift to the Warsaw zoo. In exchange Żabiński offered a boar or a pair of Russian wolves. In August 1939 a pair of jackals were successfully delivered to Warsaw by Lot, the Polish airline company, but then war broke out and the gift never arrived. Dr. Arie Lavit, the Tel Aviv zoo’s veterinarian, was quoted as saying: “If the Nazis treat animals better than they do human beings, we may get them after the war.” Relations with the Warsaw zoo were only reestablished in October 1947.

The Second World War indeed interrupted conventional forms of trade, yet it also promoted the prosperity of others. The role Palestine played in allowing the Allied Forces access to the African front provided another opportunity for bringing animals to the zoo. The troops of the Allied Forces on their way to and from Africa created routes of transportation between Palestine and the world. Animal escorts to army units came to Palestine independently of any plans to include them in the zoo. Used as army mascots, animals were part of a human collective. However the zoo provided a useful way for troops to get rid of wild animals that had been brought from the troops’ homelands or captured during their service, but could no longer live amongst humans. A segment of the Polish military force, for example, gave the zoo its national Polish symbol—two bears—over the course of two weeks. In October 1943, Israel Rokach wrote a letter of thanks to Captain A. Chelkovski, after receiving the bear “Michael” from his company. On other occasions, rather exotic creatures joined the zoo in this way, such as a huge sea turtle that was given to the zoo by British soldiers who had hauled it out of the sea. In 1942, the 16-month-old lioness Dolly was given to the zoo as a gift by the East African Pioneer Corps, where she was “serving” as a mascot. She had been captured in the mountains of Habash (in Ethiopia) and had traveled with the corps in Libya, Egypt, and Palestine before entering the zoo. It can be assumed that as the female lion cub grew older, it had become increasingly difficult for the corps to travel with her, and for that reason she was given to the zoo. Another attempt to arrange for a delivery of animals from the zoological garden in Victoria, Australia, was made by adding them as mascots to the Second Australian Imperial Force destined for Palestine. Other animals found their way to Palestine with the aid of local Jews serving in the British army. For example, a certain Gadowitch, a soldier from the Yishuv serving in the Royal Air Force, came home on vacation from Sudan bringing with him a large red monkey of a rare species. This form of importation also reveals the gap between the part Palestine played as just one more place (although strategically important) on the map of the empire during the war and the Jewish-Zionist relationship to it as the very hub of their being.

The imported animals were not easy objects to transport. They were often big, heavy, dangerous, and resourceful (especially the snakes). Therefore their transportation required suitable facilities, logistics, and the aid of various imperial and local authorities. The journey itself to their new home in Tel Aviv often caused inconvenience to the animals and their escorts. A letter written in March 1938 to the Egyptian Consul General, by Shimon Barkol, the acting town clerk, demonstrates the kind of administrative procedures that were entangled in the admission of animals to Palestine. Barkol asked the consul for his aid in providing Shorenstein, the zoo’s director at the time, with the necessary visa to enter Egypt in order to collect an animal shipment arriving from India. Often animal deliveries to the zoo were poorly organized and endangered the lives of the animals, ending successfully only by accident and the aid of officials. Thus, in a letter of thanks to Ismail Kahlil, traffic inspector of the Palestine Railways, for facilitating an animal’s transport, Nedivi wrote that “if it were not for your assistance, great loss would have been caused at the zoo itself, and in all probability, some of the animals would have perished.”

Transporting animals of different shapes and sizes demanded semi-military operations. The first giraffes arrived at the zoo in April 1946. They were part of a shipment of large animals from Central Africa, costing the zoo the considerable sum of approximately 2,000 Palestine liras. The shipment was made by train, in which the animals were stored for the 12 days of the journey. The giraffes, not shaped like typical train luggage, traveled with their heads outside the train wagon and near Kantara (Egypt) encountered difficulty in passing under a bridge. The train wagon was forced to make a detour that added another two days to the animals’ journey. At that point the Sudanese keepers left and the Tel Aviv zoo personnel took over responsibility for the shipment.

Wild animals that were occasionally captured in Palestine were also given to the zoo from time to time. Tedi, one of the veteran leopards of the zoo described above as a Sabra, was caught as a cub by a policeman patrolling the hills of Safed in 1939. The policeman killed the leopard’s mother who had been prowling around the houses in the town in search of food, and took the cub home, carrying it on his horse’s back. He reared the cub in his house, feeding him milk, bread, and later meat, but eventually decided to hand him over to the Tel Aviv zoo. On November 30, 1939, Nedivi wrote to R. Hackett of the police headquarters in Jaffa, urging him to hand over this cub to the zoo and noting that: “my friends of the Tel-Aviv Zoo—(those outside of cages and not inside) are on tenterhooks with expectation in connection with the leopard-cub the coming of which from Safad you have announced through me.” Hackett suggested that Nedivi should approach the policeman himself and arrange for the leopard to be collected from Safed. In return for his “gift,” the policeman asked for a pet monkey. From this it can be learned that such “donations” were not necessarily driven by pure interest in the zoo’s development, but could be a form of trade, involving the exchange of wild and (semi-)domesticated animals. The Tel Aviv zoo also maintained a connection with the Biblical Zoo that operated in Jerusalem from 1940, including animal exchanges and cooperation in importation of animals from abroad. For example in July 1941, an eagle caught in the Samaria Mountains was given to the Tel Aviv zoo by the zoologist Aharon Shulov, who was director of the Biblical Zoo at the time.

There was clearly no single pattern of building and “accumulating” the zoo’s animal collection. Animals arrived at the zoo with or without attempts to import them, from professional and amateur animal-keepers and from non-professional custody, via civic or military sources, and from ideological and personal motivations. Before arriving at the zoo (and at times also after) they were held in conditions not suited to their needs, and their transportation caused them severe discomfort. Yet the common denominator of many of these imports was the British imperial-colonial presence and involvement. All the factors involved in “accumulating” animals for the zoo—zoos in territories under British control, soldiers serving in the Allied Forces, a variety of officials and administrators, and Jewish philanthropists like Ezra and Marian in other colonial territories—were connected to the British role in Palestine. The various local and distant imperial authorities, diplomatic visits, war, and hunting all combined to mold the collection. Indeed it would be interesting to reflect further on the similarities between the building of the animal collection and the construction of the Jewish state itself—both involved a combination of diplomatic visits, war, “hunting,” local communities, and Jewish philanthropy, all under British custody.


The focal point of this article was the formation and representations of the Tel Aviv zoo’s animal collection during the last decade of the British presence in Palestine. Using Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—which also explains how animals and humans were represented as parts of the same collective endeavor—I focused on the historical circumstances of accumulating an animal collection at Tel Aviv zoo. The establishment of the animal collection was articulated as part of the Jewish national revival project, like many other public endeavors in the society of the Yishuv. The arrival of animals to the zoo was presented in terms borrowed from the Zionist vocabulary regarding human, ideologically motivated immigration to Palestine. In addition, the gathering of the animals at the zoo facilitated the fulfillment of dreams and aspirations that could not be realized in the human political sphere. The vision of the “ingathering of the exiles,” which was hampered by restrictions on immigration, could be symbolically achieved via the zoo, and even received the aid of the British authorities.

Yet animal accumulation, as has been shown here, should not be reduced to the national context. While the zoo was conceived as part of the Jewish-national project in Palestine, in practice it overwhelmingly relied on the British colonial state and British imperial networks. The creation of the animal collection was determined by colonial and imperial connections to other zoos, a network of transportation and administration, British imperial warfare during the Second World War, and the aid of Jewish philanthropists living under British control.

This article demonstrates once again the enormous contribution of the British empire to the Zionist project, on the one hand, and the Mandate’s negative reputation in this regard, on the other hand. The zoo manifests the European, urban, modern nature of the Zionist project and from this perspective also reflects the importance of the British role and the contribution of British imperial culture. Situating the zoo in its imperial context places it on par with modern public zoos around the empire and in Europe. It was a modern project that connected both the imperial and the national enterprises—but its significance was different to these two parties. To paraphrase Nedivi’s plea quoted at the beginning of this article: “I hope you will not mind my troubling you with such a paltry matter” as the Tel Aviv zoological garden, “but it is just such things as worrying about a Zoo” that allow us to challenge our own concept of nation formation.