Animals trapped in war zones find a second chance here

This sanctuary in Jordan offers a rare happy ending to animals rescued from 'the worst zoo in the world' and other war-torn areas.

Scooter, tortoise
At the New Hope Centre in Amman, Jordan, Scooter eats lettuce with caretaker Khalifa Allozi’s help. Rescued from a Gaza zoo in 2016, Scooter developed a musculoskeletal disease that left him paralyzed. After eight months of treatment at New Hope, the tortoise can now move his limbs. He gets around by using a skateboard.

Pablito was the first lion I’d ever seen up close. The cub, about four months old, walked toward me from the night room in his enclosure at the New Hope Centre, a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Amman, Jordan. Abruptly, he stopped and stared at me. His eyes looked sad and vulnerable, as if he were trying to tell me something in our common wordless language. I suddenly felt responsible for telling his story.

Before I met Pablito, in 2018, I had been on my way to photograph a little girl named Zahra. She was then a seven-year-old Syrian refugee living in a tented settlement in Jordan. Since 2001 I had used my camera to tell stories of hope, resilience, and survival. Over and over again, I’d visited places shattered by conflict and places where those who had fled disaster were struggling to start new lives.

Then I heard about the New Hope clinic, which offered a second chance for other defenseless souls: traumatized and neglected animals rescued from mismanaged zoos, saved from war zones, or confiscated from smugglers.

New Hope served as a quarantine and rehab facility for animals that eventually would be moved to Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife, a forested refuge about 30 miles away, which sprawls over 274 acres in the Jerash mountains of northwest Jordan. The sanctuary was home to a tortoise that had been paralyzed by a musculoskeletal disease and rescued, in 2016, from what’s been called the worst zoo in the world, in Gaza. Al Ma’wa (Arabic for “the shelter”) also housed African lions and Asiatic black bears from Magic World, a theme park and zoo on the outskirts of Aleppo in war-torn Syria.

I started visiting regularly. Documenting these creatures’ lives was eye-opening. My work had always focused on people caught in the middle of chaos, on human misery and destruction. Now I was facing the animals left behind—victims of conflicts that had nothing to do with them. Had they not been rescued, these animals likely would have been killed in bombings, caught in cross fire, or left to starve.

One time, at New Hope, caretakers and a veterinarian were preparing three striped hyenas, rescued from zoos in Jordan and Gaza, to be released into the wild. The team darted each hyena with a tranquilizer and performed full medical checkups.

Once the hyenas were deemed fit for transport, they were moved by van and released in remote south-central Jordan. These animals were lucky. Most that are rescued from failing zoos or war zones—which often lack power and water, to say nothing of funding or caregivers—have no home to return to. For these stateless animals, the Al Ma’wa sanctuary provides permanent asylum.

Pablito, the little lion cub, would become one of those. Being locked up in a small cage at the zoo had traumatized Pablito, his caretaker told me. The cub had a large scar on his nose from repeatedly trying to force his cage open. But after only a month at New Hope, Pablito was starting to recover. I spent hours watching him play with tree branches and a burlap sack hanging from the ceiling of his 1,600-square-foot enclosure; he scrambled in and out of a kids’ playhouse and roared. At night he’d fall asleep in a bed of hay.

Later, I met Scooter, the tortoise paralyzed by mistreatment. After eight months of intensive hydrotherapy and a diet rich in vitamins to help strengthen his muscles, Scooter had started moving his limbs. He now moved slowly around the grounds atop a skateboard.

Princess Alia Al Hussein, the eldest daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein, told me that she began to think about establishing an animal sanctuary in 2009, when a traveling circus stopped in Jordan. Many of its animals were in poor condition. A lion cub had been declawed, and her feet were in pain. Later, Princess Alia discovered that the circus’s permits, from the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, were forged.

Back then, Princess Alia says, many Jordanians were unaware of animal welfare issues. That’s when she says she recognized the need for an initiative like New Hope.

Through her nonprofit, the Princess Alia Foundation, she partnered with Four Paws, an animal welfare organization based in Vienna. In January 2010 the New Hope Centre welcomed its first patient, a four-year-old striped hyena named Dobbie, rescued from a local zoo. Al Ma’wa opened in 2011.

“We do our best to make visitors understand that the conditions for wild animals in zoos are not proper,” Marek Trela, a veterinarian and the CEO of Al Ma’wa, told me. “The ideal situation would be to release them in nature. However, if they are born in captivity, this is not always possible.” But it is possible, he said, to give these animals improved living conditions.

At Al Ma’wa, which operates mostly on donations, animals are still surrounded by fences, but they have access to the outdoors and enjoy a more natural environment. The sanctuary is in one of the nation’s last remaining expanses of Mediterranean forest, populated by evergreen oak, pine, and strawberry trees. And although the property isn’t particularly large, it comfortably accommodates 70 animals, including 24 African lions, eight Syrian brown bears, two Asiatic black bears, two Bengal tigers, two striped hyenas, one spotted hyena, and eight wolves, one of which was rescued after being listed for sale on Facebook.

Each week these animals consume more than 1,200 pounds of meat—unsellable leftovers donated by supermarkets and slaughterhouses—and more than 4,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Most animals arrive at the sanctuary without medical records; the details of their histories are largely unknown. Caretakers spend time learning about every individual, and they make sure each animal has its cherished comforts.

Max, a lion rescued from a Gaza zoo, has cardboard boxes to tear apart. Kahrba, another lion, rescued from Aleppo, enjoys batting at burlap sacks filled with hay. Every few weeks, Ballou, the Syrian brown bear, enjoys his favorite treat: a coconut.

Caretakers ensure that visitors do nothing to provoke these creatures, and visitors learn about the differences between wild and domesticated animals. While an individual wild animal may be tamed, learning to live alongside and even rely on humans, it takes thousands of years of selective breeding for a species to become genetically adapted to live among us.

I sensed at Al Ma’wa some sort of in-between space, in which animals clearly connected with their caretakers. They weren’t domestic, but they weren’t truly wild either.

This became obvious to me when the tigers Tash and Sky appeared, as if from nowhere, the moment their caretaker made a sound. And when Ballou clambered to the fence the instant his caretaker called his name. I tried calling some of the animals’ names myself, but none paid any attention.

At Al Ma’wa, I was intrigued to see an Asiatic black bear known as Sukkar, Arabic for “sugar,” standing upright like a human being—a natural behavior. I photographed a short-toed snake eagle, white and light brown in color, that lay on the ground whenever I approached. A roughly one-year-old little owl, confiscated from a hotel room in Amman after being listed for sale online, stared directly into my camera lens as I leaned in to make a portrait. The owl later was released into the wild.

I felt heartbroken to learn what each of these animals had been through. Still, each time I left, I couldn’t wait for the next time I could go back. Whenever I’m in Jordan, I stop by.

Since the end of 2018, I’ve visited New Hope and Al Ma’wa about 25 times. (New Hope consolidated its operations in September 2021, moving all its staff and animals to Al Ma’wa.) It’s almost enough to feel like a part of the animals’ lives—invisible and, I hope, trusted. I’ve watched some of them grow up. It’s a joy for me to see them living the lives they deserve, and that’s what pulls me back again and again.

Arriving at Al Ma’wa on a cloudy Friday in March, I was particularly eager to see the cats. As I neared one enclosure, a majestic-looking lion, tall and well muscled, approached the fence. He nodded at me, then calmly walked toward the trees. From the small scar on his nose, I knew the lion was Pablito, the cub I had first encountered five years ago—now called Pablo, his grown-up name.

I couldn’t believe it: He recognized me.

A photographer who’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice, Muhammed Muheisen also established the Dutch nonprofit Everyday Refugees Foundation. He became a National Geographic Explorer in 2023. “As a human being, a photojournalist, and a Jordanian, “he says, “I’m proud to tell the story of the Al Ma’wa sanctuary, which gives a second chance to voiceless souls.”

This story appears in the August 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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