By Kristina Jovanovski
Tucked away in the western countryside of Turkey, a rehabilitation centre is caring for more than a dozen evacuated zoo animals that endured more than six years of war in Syria.
Cuts and wounds around the eyes, backs and tails of five lions give a suggestion of their experiences.
The charity Four Paws, with the assistance of the Turkish government and a local security company, crossed into Syria from Turkey to take the animals from the abandoned zoo Aalim al-Sahar in Aleppo.
In total, 13 animals were taken from the facility, which used to house hundreds, according to Dr. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian and leader of the mission.
“These are, we see, the last survivors of the zoo at the moment.”
Aside from the lions, there are two bears, two tigers, two hyenas, and two dogs. All but the dogs are being kept in cages at the centre in the outskirts of the town of Karacabey, about 225km south of Istanbul.
The first group was dehydrated, and had wounds that might have been due to the animals rubbing against their fences in their small enclosures in Syria.
The female tiger, Sayeeda, was malnourished and the male tiger, Sultan, went into cardiac arrest when he was given anesthesia for a health check-up.
But some of the most worrying effects of the war are not so visible.
“They don’t trust humans. I would say human presence is a bit of stress for them because of what they’ve been through, they have been in an area which has been in the centre of a conflict,” says Yavor Gechev of Four Paws.
One of the lions is due to give birth to two cubs within two weeks. The ultrasound showed they are in good condition and at least one is a boy.
On Friday, the charity was told the government had approved its plans to take the animals out of Turkey and to a sanctuary in Jordan.
Eventually, the two tigers will be moved to the Netherlands where the organisation has a special facility for traumatised large cats.
For now, the Four Paws staff do not believe the rehabilitation centre in Turkey is safe enough to let the animals out of their small cages.
Turkey is home to the largest refugee population in the world, with about three million Syrian refugees.
Gechev expects the animals will fully recover physically, but he is more concerned about their long-term psychological health.
“[It] takes longer time to recover emotionally. They need to be in the proper place because here, sitting in the crates, does not help them recover from what they’ve been through in Syria.”