By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Five lions, five monkeys, four ostriches, three peacocks, two wolves and a hyena departed Gaza for Jordan on Sunday, after being rescued from a Gaza zoo where many animals died of starvation and lack of care.
The animal welfare group Four Paws international carried out the relocation, which also included dogs, cats, foxes, porcupines and 10 squirrels.
Fathy Jomaa, owner of the zoo in Rafah, southern Gaza, blamed bad economic conditions and a decade of Israeli-led blockade on the narrow coastal enclave for leaving him unable to properly feed and care for his animals.
Jomaa had come under intense criticism by animal care groups after a series of recent deaths and mishaps.
Four lion cubs died from cold during a storm in January. A monkey killed another, and a porcupine died more recently of unknown causes, said the owner. Earlier this year he de-clawed two young lions so that zoo visitors could safely pose for selfies with them.
Now only the birds remain at the site. They were left behind by Four Paws.
Four Paws veterinarian Amir Khalil, who led the rescue mission, said cages at the Gaza zoo had become too small to house the animals and their offspring. He said the animals would go to a sanctuary in Jordan.
"It is a tough decision, I feel like I am losing my family. I lived with some of those animals for 20 years," Jomaa told Reuters, saying that economic hardship left him with no choice. "I hope they find a better place to live," he said.
The head of the Land Crossings Authority at Israel's Ministry of Defense, Shlomo Saban, said in a statement they "used every means at our disposal to help transfer the animals as quickly as possible".
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza for security reasons after the Islamist group Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. The World Bank says the blockade has reduced the territory, home to 2 million Palestinians, to a state of economic collapse.
(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Peter Graff)