Biblical zoo called modern Noahs ark

Kids jump and squeal as a hippopotamus waddles out of the water. Others giggle and imitate squirrel monkeys springing from tree to tree.

Not the usual religious or archaeological image of visitors to Jerusalem. But this country that nurtures and takes inordinate pride in its children also cherishes its animals. And even this kids' attraction claims biblical connotations.

"We want this zoo to be a modern Noah's ark," said Shai Doron, director of the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens. "After all, the first idea of conserving animal life appeared in the Bible." This is reinforced by the 14-minute introductory film "The Return of Noah's Ark."

The zoo, sprawled over 60 acres, has become one of modern Jerusalem's major attractions since opening in 1993. It was preceded by the small Biblical Zoo, which closed in 1991 after four decades. This version, adhering to contemporary zoo philosophy, allows its critters to roam in natural surroundings rather than live pent up in metal cages. Only natural barriers and low fences separate the two-legged and four-legged species, including lions, snow leopards and crocodiles.

The zoo follows the tradition of showcasing animals mentioned in the Bible in the 10-acre Bibleland Preserve. However, "only about 50 percent of our animals have biblical history," Doron said. "Most of them are extinct."

Signs spotlighting the habitat, food and characteristics also mention biblical references. For instance, at the red deer exhibit, the sign says: "As the deer panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God" (Psalms 42: 2).

Special computer stations access all animals mentioned in the Bible, providing biblical references and zoological background for each species, in Hebrew and English.

Non-biblical animals also demonstrate some of the zoo's goals, which include conservation, breeding, education and reintroducing endangered species back to the wild. The zoo is particularly concerned about reintroducing animals that can no longer be found in the Middle East. Currently, more than 1,000 mammals, birds and reptiles at the zoo represent 140 species.

Other sections include the Pritzker Children's Zoo–where little ones may pet and feed small, tame animals. And the David Lauffer Flamingo Pond provides a quiet spot for children who have been cavorting along the paths within sight of the Jerusalem hills. Those with difficulty walking may opt for the tram ride, which encircles the grounds.

The zoo maintains a relationship with Tufts University in Massachusetts and uses volunteers from ages 16 to 78.

It's open on Shabbat (visitors may buy tickets in advance or that day from a separate van) and closes only on Yom Kippur, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. A great way to spend a few hours with the kids while touring Israel.