Noah’s Ark: Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo Bids Farewell to its Last Hippo

August 22, 2018

6 min read

Two by two, male and female, the animals came into Noah’s Ark. Twenty-five years ago, they were Mati and Tami; 12 years later, there was only one, and now there are none.

Jerusalem’s world-famous Biblical Zoo is mourning for Tami, its last hippopotamus, who died last week at the ripe old age of 59. Her mate, Mati, had a sadder end, having died suddenly after swallowing a rubber ball that a zoo visitor had thrown into their small enclosure and choking on it.

Located just a stone’s throw below the two-story, boat-shaped wooden visitor’s center meant to resemble Noah’s Ark, the spacious African Savannah seems to zoo aficionados to be missing something – the aging hippopotamus Tami is no longer in the artificial pond in its center. Feeling unwell and even being reluctant to eat her beloved watermelons, the female hippo got weaker until her body was found by her longtime keeper, Gilad Moshe.

Tami the hippo with her keeper, Gilad Moshe. (Credit: Jerusalem Zoo)

“She was the queen of the Savannah,” he told Breaking Israel News. “Everybody loved her. The rhinos, the giraffes, the zebras and the other grass-eating animals there always treated her with respect. And now she is gone. People came specially to see her. A week after she died, the staff are still talking about her.”

There are only about 125,000 other hippos left, mostly in Africa, and their numbers are declining due to the loss of their habitat, logging and human settlement. Experts estimate that the world’s hippo population will drop more than 30% in the next three decades. Unlike her mate, who died suddenly in his 30’s and underwent an autopsy at the Beit Dagan Veterinary Hospital near Rehovot, Tami was buried in a grave far from the visiting area, and a marker was placed above it.

“I have been here since the age of 14, when my Ziv High School teachers instructed pupils to volunteer, and I asked to work at the zoo. Now I am 38 years old and I have been an employee since I completed my military service,” said Moshe. “At first, I took care of monkeys, but for the last 13 years, I have fed, cleaned, observed and trained Tami to go into and out of her house. She originally came to us from the small zoo in the city of Petah Tikva. She never got pregnant; we don’t know why. When Mati died, the pair were in a very cramped, boring enclosure. Visitors would throw melons into their mouths,” recalled the keeper, who works long hours six days a week but loves his job.

But when Tami was suddenly alone and getting older, it was decided to move her to the large African Savannah. “For her, the move was wow! She had space to walk around during the cool early morning hours and the evening. She spent most of her time, though, in the pool, as hippos don’t like sun. Weighing 2.5 tons, in the water, she felt lighter.”

In addition to the melons, she developed more sophisticated tastes, sharing different grains and alfalfa with the zebras, continued Moshe. If she needed to take pills, “we hid them in loaves of bread, and she gobbled them up. She never suffered wounds or sores. We never had to give her injections or anesthesia; she was healthy most of the time.” His young children Arbel and Ravid knew Tami and are proud that their father took care of her. “All of us miss her,” Moshe said.

The African Savannah looks rather empty without her, even with its eight giraffes, four elks, three ostriches, three zebras, two rhinos, two gnus (wildebeests) and two marabou storks.

Asked whether the Biblical Zoo intends to obtain another hippo or two, Moshe said no decision will be made for a while. Young hippos are dangerous because they are hard to control. Tami was old and fine living with the other animals.

Zoological director and chief veterinarian Dr. Nili Avni-Magen added that future plans are being discussed, but nothing has yet been decided. “Tami was very special. She had a wonderful connection with our team, but the Savannah is not suited for young hippos. Maybe we might get a pygmy hippo, which is an endangered species; if so, it would be the first such species in Israel. But we never purchase animals. We trade or are donated animals from other zoos in Israel or in Europe. We pay only for their transport.”

Zoological director and chief veterinarian Dr. Nili Avni-Magen. (Credit: Jerusalem Zoo)

Avni-Magen, who has worked at the zoo for a quarter of a century, has obtained eight nyalas spiral-horned antelopes native to southern Africa – from the Safari in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. They will be brought to the African Savannah. Their coats are rusty or brown in females and juveniles, but turn dark brown or slate grey, often tinged with blue, in adult males. Females and young males have 10 or more white stripes on their sides.

One of the top tourist attractions in Israel with over 750,000 visitor per year, the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens – better known to all as Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo ( has about 2,000 animals and a total of some 200 species. It is today considered one of the most outstanding zoos in the world.

The expansive site, stretching across almost 100 acres (400 dunams) opened in Jerusalem’s Malha neighborhood in 1993, having been located in various locations in Jerusalem since 1941. At any time – even in periods of anti-Israel terror attacks – Jews, Christians and Muslims; secular and religious: young and old; and tourists and locals can be seen strolling peacefully among his landscaped paths. Thus the zoo has become a bridge between communities. It is one of the few sites in Israel where everyone comes together and feels welcome, says Avni-Magen.

A non-profit organization, it was created by a partnership consisting of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Jerusalem Foundation and receives no governmental aid. It was originally established in 1940 as a small children’s zoo on Rabbi Kook Street in central Jerusalem by the late Prof. Aharon Shulov, one of the pioneers in the field of zoology at the Hebrew University. In 1941, a somewhat larger zoo was established on about one acre on Shmuel Hanavi Street in Jerusalem. In 1947, the zoo was moved to the Hebrew University campus Mt. Scopus. As a result of the hardships caused by Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the animals were transferred once again to a larger area of under 15 acres (60 dunams) in the Romema neighborhood, remaining there for 41 years. The old zoo closed in 1991, and the process of moving to the new location was begun, culminating in the current zoo being opened in 1993.

Its aims include ensuring the highest standards of animal care and ensuring their long-term survival; emphasizing species from the land of Israel, with special emphasis on those mentioned in the Bible; establishing and participating in wildlife conservation projects aimed at protecting animal populations and their habitats; educating visitors about animals and their habitats; researching all aspects of animal biology to improve understanding of animals and how they live and interact; encouraging community participation and educational and cultural activities; and developing education programs for individuals with special needs.

The Biblical Zoo, whose longtime CEO is Shai Doron, is a fully active member of several international bodies, including the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.

Between the railway to Tel Aviv and the African Savannah is the Zoological Garden’s year-old Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium, which has had 80,000 visitors so far even though it is still being “run in” due to deaths of 10% to 20% of the sea creatures because of their difficulty in getting used to being moved to a new location.

The aquarium focuses on Israel’s marine environment – the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea as well as on the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Part of the Tisch Famly Zoological Garden, it was built with an almost-identical entrance but stands on its own as a separate tourist attraction. Although there is an offshore Underwater Observatory at the Red Sea off Eilat, the Jerusalem facility is the first aquarium in Israel. From the outset, it was decided that the aquarium will focus on presenting the habitats and marine environment of Israel.

With fish and even sharks swimming behind thick curved glass and even overhead, its galleries present an ever-moving display. A gallery connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea presents a four-minute film documentary explaining the construction of the Suez Canal and its environmental effects, including the migration of species from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

The combined zoo and aquarium will surely continue to be a great attraction for visitors throughout the world to Israel.

If you want an Israeli expert to answer your medical questions, write to Breaking Israel News health and science senior reporter Judy Siegel-Itzkovich at with your initials, age, gender and place of residence.

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