Bambi at the Zoo

Persian fallow deer at Jerusalem Biblical Zoo

Every time we visit the zoo in Jerusalem, we walk along a trail overlooking the large flat area that replicates the African plain, to see the zebras, giraffes, rhinoceros, and gazelles. On the uphill side, in a grassy wooded area, a small herd of Persian fallow deer lie in the shade. And every time I walk by them, I hear numerous small children joyfully, and incorrectly, call out “Bambi!”

The zoo’s official English name is the Tisch Family Zoological Garden. Its Hebrew name is more descriptive: the Tisch Family Biblical Zoological Garden in Jerusalem, or Biblical Zoo for short. Its original mission was to exhibit all the animals mentioned in the Bible.

In 1940, the Biblical zoo started as a small children’s zoo in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, just off Jaffa Road. Within two years it relocated to a much larger one acre site further north. In 1947, it moved to Mount Scopus, where the animals were displayed in a large area set aside by the Hebrew University. When the Arabs attacked Mount Scopus during the War of Independence, the animals moved again, this time to the western part of Jerusalem not too far from where we live.  It was a popular attraction, but eventually its needs outgrew the capacity of its 15 acre site. So in 1991, the zoo was again moved, this time to a 62 acre site in the southern part of the city.

Just inside the entrance to the zoo is a lake. A stream runs down the steep hill into the lake, where flamingos, ducks, and other waterfowl live. The main path runs past the lake, and most visitors stop to watch the monkeys frolic on their island before walking further up towards the bears. When we go with children (and who doesn’t?) we always walk past the lions and elephants to Noah’s Ark at the far end. There we watch the film about the zoo’s efforts to promote conservation of rare species, one of which is the Persian fallow deer.

Fallow deer are named in D’varim (Deuteronomy) as a kosher animal. They were also given to King Solomon as part of the daily provisions for his court (Kings I, chapter 5). Although fallow deer are the most common wild animal in Europe, the Persian fallow deer is a separate subspecies, whose tail and antlers are different. They once inhabited woodlands from North Africa to Turkey, but by 1940 the species was considered extinct, as a result of habitat destruction and overhunting. Then a small herd of about 25 fallow deer was discovered in the Khuzistan Province of Iran in the mid 1950s.

The story of the herd of Persian fallow deer coming to the Biblical Zoo starts in 1962, with the appointment of General Avraham Yoffe as head of the newly established of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. One of his initiatives was to resettle wildlife populations in Israel that had been wiped out by hunting, wars, and habitat destruction. The Persian fallow deer was high on his list.

Nubian ibex at Biblical Zoo

He started by winning the favor of two high Iranian officials, Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, and a senior wildlife official, Rashid Jamsheed. They were invited to hunt the rare Nubian ibex in the Negev desert. Hunting this animal was illegal, but the Minister of Agriculture, Ariel Sharon, granted them special permission to do so.  Both men returned to Iran with their ibex trophies.

In mid 1978, as the Iranian Revolution began to simmer, the prince gave permission to the Israel Nature Authority to acquire two pairs of fallow deer. But on his arrival in Tehran, General Yoffe suffered a heart attack and was evacuated to Israel. Before he left, he passed his mission to General Itzhik Segev, the Israeli military attache in Iran.

The Iranian Revolution became stronger, and it became obvious the Shah’s regime was about to fall. Yoffe knew that when the Shah fell, he would no longer be able to obtain his deer. So he sent Mike Van Grevenbroek, a Dutch zoologist working in Israel, to Iran to get them.

Van Grevenbroek arrived in Tehran at the end of November carrying a cane with a blow gun hidden inside it. He drove to a game preserve on the Caspian Sea, about ten hours from the city, and spent five days tracking down four deer. Using the blow gun, he shot them with sedative and brought them back to Tehran in crates a week later. The deer stayed in the embassy courtyard until it was time to leave the country.

While Van Grevenbroek was off hunting, Segev tried to get export licenses for the animals. By now the prince had fled. Segev was told to go to the senior veterinarian, Tehran zoo director Erwin Mueller. Mueller did not like Israel, and at first refused to issue the necessary license. Then he relented, on condition that the Israelis also rescue the Shah’s pet cheetah and leopard, who had been brought to the zoo from the palace for safekeeping.

At this time, with the situation worsening every day, the Israeli embassy was busy trying to evacuate 1700 Israelis and Iranian Jews, and as much of their belongings as they could fit in the El Al planes. Segev felt he had no choice, and agreed to take the wild cats. But when he arrived at the zoo, he found he was too late. The angry mob had already invaded and killed the Shah’s pets.

On December 8, 1978, the four fallow deer were put back in their crates and loaded into the cargo hold of what turned out to be the last El Al flight from Tehran to Israel. They were met at the Tel Aviv airport by General Yoffe. Van Grevenbroek reported the General had tears in eyes when he saw the deer.

The deer were taken to the Hai Bar nature reserve. Along with several Persian fallow deer acquired from European zoos, they became the progenitors of a population of about 150 animals. In 1996, the Biblical Zoo established a captive breeding program, which has also been very successful.

It is estimated that today about 150 Persian fallow deer remain in the wild in Iran. In Israel about two hundred of them live in the Hai Bar reserve. Additionally, more than forty deer have been released into the wild in the Judean mountains around Jerusalem, where they seem to be thriving. They have been sighted as far away as Tzur Hadassah and Ramat Raziel, twenty kilometers away.

A young and a mature fallow deer

And of course in Jerusalem, at the zoo. I tried to explain to the grandchildren the difference between Bambi and the fallow deer. Bambi, a white-tailed deer, had spots when he was little, and when he grew up his coat was all brown; these deer are all brown when they are little, but have spots when they are grown up. On our next zoo trip, the children ran to where they could see the deer, and excitedly pointed them out. “Look! Bambi!”

Obviously, Disney is more authoritative than Savta.