In Jordan, a place for animals to forget the trauma of war

Taylor Luck
Sultan, a lion rescued from Gaza, presides over his habitat at the Al Ma'wa wildlife sanctuary in northern Jordan, April 11. The sanctuary has taken in and restored to health animals that were traumatized by conflict in Syria and Iraq.

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At the Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve in Jordan, 30 miles northwest of Amman, the forgotten victims of the Middle East’s wars are being provided with a place to recover and forget. On a sleepy hill of oak and pine overlooking the olive groves and apple orchards of Jerash, pairs of large eyes gleam from the brush. Lions, tigers, and bears.

When rescued from conflict zones, the animals are often in a near-critical condition, burned, scarred, and emaciated. Special diets restore them physically. But Al Ma’wa staff also help the victims of mental trauma, including lions and bears from Aleppo, Syria, that shiver with fear in their shelters for hours at the sound of a passing plane.

Among the methods: introducing a rotation of pleasurable but unusual scents to their habitats that keep their olfactory senses engaged, and a series of new games and toys to keep their minds active. Says Saif al-Rawashdeh, lead animal keeper and supervisor at Al Ma’wa: “Our care is based on one approach: How can we get the animals to forget what they have been through?”

Why We Wrote This

Even after violence stops, the physical and mental costs of war can endure. Well documented in people, it is true for animals as well. Our reporter visited with animals recovering from Mideast conflicts.

Hamzeh has begun to build a new life in northern Jordan two years after fleeing his war-torn home country of Syria.

Like many of the 1.2 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Jordan since 2012, Hamzeh has been given shelter and adjusted to a new climate and cuisine. He has enjoyed the hospitality of Jordanians, who have donated food and toys, and has even made dozens of Jordanian friends. 

But one thing separates Hamzeh from the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who now call Jordan home: Hamzeh is a lion.

Why We Wrote This

Even after violence stops, the physical and mental costs of war can endure. Well documented in people, it is true for animals as well. Our reporter visited with animals recovering from Mideast conflicts.

At the Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve, 30 miles northwest of Amman, Jordan and wildlife advocates are providing both a home and hope for the forgotten victims of the region’s wars: endangered wildlife.

On a sleepy hill of oak and pine trees overlooking the olive groves and apple orchards of Jerash, a low rumble fills the air as pairs of large eyes gleam from the brush. Lions. Tigers. Bears. The large animals, some of them thousands of miles from their natural habitats, quickly make it known that these ancient woods popular with hikers and Friday picnickers are their home.

The sanctuary, which rescues, rehabilitates, and houses wildlife from the region’s wars, is a joint initiative by the Princess Alia Foundation, a conservation and development NGO founded by a member of the Hashemite royal family, and Four Paws, a Vienna-based international animal welfare organization.

Since 2016, Al Ma’wa staff have been healing and rehabilitating 26 animals rescued from local zoos, smugglers, and Jordan’s war-torn neighbors: lions from Aleppo, Syria; a bear from Mosul, Iraq; lion cubs from Gaza.

‘Statement’ pets

Here on a 250-acre lot donated by the Jordanian Agriculture Ministry, Al Ma’wa has built spacious habitats for the large cats and bears, allowing them acres to roam freely for the first time in their lives.

The idea of the reserve came in 2011, when the Princess Alia Foundation looked to find a home for rescued large wildlife, particularly Balou, a brown bear taken from a poorly run private zoo in Amman.

The location of the sanctuary is convenient. Jordan lies at the heart of wildlife smuggling routes, through which exotic animals from North Africa, breeders, or private zoos are sold off to wealthy individuals in neighboring Saudi Arabia who are looking for a “statement” pet.

Jordanian authorities had previously caught tiger cubs hidden in shoeboxes under the driver’s seat of a car heading to Saudi Arabia, pythons hidden in suitcases, and individuals posting lion cubs for sale on Facebook.

But with ongoing violence in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza leaving hundreds of zoo animals unfed, ill, and abandoned, Al Ma’wa also set its sights on rescuing animals, becoming the region’s first animal refugee camp.

Psychological wounds

Once Four Paws rescues the furry guests from conflict zones and transports them to Jordan, their health is often in a near-critical condition: lions and bears with burn marks and scars on their faces; skinny-bordering-on-emaciated bodies, with ribs bulging through their sagging skin; cheeks and eyes sunken into their skulls.

Al Ma’wa health experts provide the rescued animals with vitamins and special diets of lamb carcasses, fruit, and even rice and pasta to restore them physically.

But more than simply provide medical care and food, Al Ma’wa staff help the animals heal from the traumas of war.

“Our care is based on one approach: How can we get the animals to forget what they have been through?” says Saif al-Rawashdeh, lead animal keeper and supervisor at Al Ma’wa.

For weeks after their arrival, staff say, the rescued animals exhibit “aggressive” behavior, constantly screaming and howling, or throwing their bodies against the gates in protest.

Yet other trauma-induced behavior lasts longer.

When planes roared overhead, the bears and lions from Aleppo would race for cover and spend hours in their night-shelters, shivering with a fear instilled by the destruction of President Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes and barrel bombs.

It is a trauma shared by hundreds if not thousands of Syrian children, who according to refugee advocates and Jordanian school teachers, suffer similar post-traumatic stress episodes from planes for several months after arriving in Jordan.

Learning to forget

The sound of a car engine and the approach of a vehicle would also cause the animals to run in fright or become aggressive, reliving the trauma of militias’ trucks, or wildlife smugglers. The presence of a stranger would send the animals scampering.

In order to get the animals acclimated to the sanctuary’s vehicles delivering pounds of meat and fruit for their meals, reserve staff would approach the habitats slowly in their trucks, parking at progressively shorter distances – 50 meters away, 40, 30, 20, 10 – until the animals learned that the trucks were not a threat, but a sign that a meal was coming.

Another key component to their rehabilitation is a rotation of pleasurable but unusual scents in their habitats, such as cinnamon and various perfumes, keeping their olfactory senses engaged, and a series of new games and toys to keep their minds active. 

“Every time we give them toys, scents, activities, and games, their minds are busy and it slowly helps them forget,” Mr. al-Rawashdeh says.

Open to the public, Al Ma’wa receives up to 1,000 visitors on guided tours each week, including dozens of schoolchildren on field trips.

This summer, the reserve is set to open an education center to teach visitors the importance of caring for wildlife and nature, in addition to a restaurant and lodges overlooking the habitats for guests wishing to spend the night.

There are many signs that after two years guests at Al Ma’wa are feeling right at home – and no longer fear the presence of humans.  

Loz, a playful Asian black bear rescued from Aleppo in 2017, pops his head in and out of his night-room, playing a game of “peekaboo” with Mr. al-Rawashdeh and a reporter, opening his mouth wide in what could only be described as a mischievous smile.

Having finished her lunch, Halab, a lioness from Syria, rolls onto her back, lying belly up in the sun a few inches away from the gate for a post-meal nap – like a kitten asking to be petted.

Max, another lion, walks toward the edge of the gate, and, facing the reporter, calmly sits down without a sound, attentive and curious.

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