Sad faces in the Sana’a Zoo

Published on 2 July 2012 in Health & Environment
Ahlam Mohsen (author), Nicholas Linn (photographer)

Ahlam Mohsen


Nicholas Linn

Cheetah looks at the world beyond the cage where he is confined.

Cheetah looks at the world beyond the cage where he is confined.

On the outskirts of Sana’a, in a government-run zoo, families with young children admire the city’s collection of caged wild animals, many donated to the zoo from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s private collection. As children eagerly gather around the baboons to lavish them with popcorn, mothers whisper about whether or not the animals look underfed.  

Questionable care

According to a report by the Environment Protection Authority and the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, animals at the Sana’a Zoo face “overstocking, poor handling and lack of preventative medicine,” which compromises their welfare.

Although the report concludes that most of the animals have reasonable diets, there are numerous documented cases of neglect and improper care.

Three gazelles suffered from interdigital necrobacillosis, an inflammation of the skin and tissues.  Hyenas, who in the wild are active hunters that kill up to 95 percent of their food, appear lethargic and uninterested while in “old, small, temporary cages, which housed single hyaenas [sic]... and were considered most unsuitable,” according to the report.

Carnivores are fed poultry and meat—more than necessary—resulting in digestive issues. At least one lion suffered from in-grown claws. Reptiles, according to the report, appeared not to have eaten “since arrival in captivity.”

Conservation of threatened species

The report lists numerous animals that have become extinct in Yemen, many in the past 50 years. They include the Queen of Sheba’s gazelle, the Saudi gazelle and the Arabian oryx.

It concludes that zoos are necessary for the conservation of threatened species.  

According to the report, however, animals bred at the zoo have very low survival rates, whether raised by the mother or hand-raised. Chances of survival after release back into the wild are even less promising.  

Sana’a Zoo is not one of the 1,200 zoos worldwide registered for captive breeding and wildlife conservation. Additionally, only two percent of endangered species are registered in captive breeding and wildlife programs, according to a 1994 report by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

In Yemen, where unemployment is rampant and nearly half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, villagers trap animals to sell to zoos. Many captured animals have injuries from their captures; broken legs from traps are common. Although Sana’a Zoo has a policy of not purchasing animals injured in capture, the trapping of animals by villagers hoping to make  money contributes to the declining population of numerous species, undermining conservation efforts, zoo critics say.  

Education or Entertainment?

Um Mohamed brings her children to the Sana’a Zoo two or three times a year.  

“I want them to see and learn about the animals,” she says. “This is their favorite place.”

 Her six-year-old daughter, Neeju, knows one of the lions by name.

“Sumaya, Wake up! She is very lazy today,” Neeju says.  

Sumaya, collapsed on a concrete slab, is rather indifferent to Neeju’s existence. She is one of six lions in the cage, the loner of the group, off by herself.  

Although signs detail each species origin and Latin name, few parents pay attention to them, and children appear uninterested.  

Zoo critics contend that their purpose is primarily entertainment, not education.  


Zoochosis, a term coined by the late Bill Travers of the Born Free Foundation, refers to the abnormal and obsessive behavior of captive animals, including “repeated pacing, rocking, vomiting and even self- mutilation.”

In addition to the 19 percent of carnivores at the zoo with injuries from cage mates, more than 12 percent had self-inflicted or stress-related injuries, according to the zoo report.

American animal rights group Mercy for Animals reports that chimpanzees often bite their own limbs from the stress induced by captivity.  

“Their  hands were unrecognizable from all the scar tissue,” one chimpanzee manager said.

Big cats and primates are known to bang their heads against bars and walls. Primates can be seen hugging their knees and rocking back and forth, “a recognized symptom of mental illness in human beings,” according to Circus Watch.  

The Sana’a Zoo report counted ten cases of carnivores with fractured teeth resulting from “stress-induced biting of cage-bars.”

Two gazelles had limb fractures from running into fences, according to the report.

All leopard cubs are taken from their mothers at birth because the stress of captivity often leads mothers to kill their young. Efforts at hand-raising the cubs have been unsuccessful—every cub at the zoo has died.

Zoo critics maintain that zoos, where animals are denied everything natural to them, are no place for animals.