By Noah Browning
DUBAI (Reuters) - Fighting, bombing and a blockade by militiamen of food and water that have killed hundreds of people in the southwestern Yemeni city of Taiz have not spared the animals of the local zoo.
But thanks in part to the work of an animal-lover a world away in Sweden, the beasts now have a better chance of surviving.
The feathered and furry denizens of the city zoo are slowly dying from starvation and untreated wounds before the eyes of helpless keepers, in another sign of suffering the impoverished country has endured in nearly a year of war.
King of the jungle no longer, one male lion is so emaciated that every bump in his spine pokes up and sores cover much of his body.
The critically endangered Arabian leopards which once stalked the verdant highlands are dropping dead from hunger. Zoo staff allow them to feast on their expired brethren - anything to keep them alive.
"When I first arrived, the scene was terrifying. Animals would be fed one day and not eat again for another five. They were bleeding, angry and would fight each other over any scraps to eat," said one volunteer working at the zoo.
"It was a picture of hell on earth," he added.
The man, who declined to give his name for security reasons, said the number of staff was down to just 17 - none of them had been paid in months and were working for love of the animals.
"They're doing the best they can given the shortages," he told Reuters.
Taiz is contested between local militias and the armed Houthi group which many residents say blocks aid from entering and bombs civilian targets. It is one of the worst fronts of the war, in which forces loyal to a government ousted by the Houthis in March are seeking to fight back to the capital Sanaa.
The Houthis say it is fighting extremist groups in Taiz and around the countries and denies blockading basic supplies.
Residents say the Houthis have repeatedly shelled hospitals and civilian areas, while their network of checkpoints around the city mean locals must smuggle in cooking gas and bread through rutted mountain passes.
A Saudi-led military coalition that backs the pro-government fighters bombs Houthi positions multiple times a day and residents live in constant fear of death.
Medics in the city say at least 1,600 people have been killed in the city since the start of the war. At least 6,000 people have been killed in Yemen, according to the United Nations, around half of them civilians.
The some 280 animals in the zoo - 20 lions including 2 cubs, 26 Arabian leopards as well as Arabian deer, monkeys, porcupines, lynx, and eagles - have not been spared the trauma.
Eleven lions and six leopards have died. Those which survive pace in anguish in their cages and animals are at turns sullen and anxious.
Earlier this month, zoo workers posted pictures to social media posing in front of the stricken animals with signs reading, "SOS Taiz zoo, animals are starving."
The appeal paid off and the scenes stirred hearts a world away in Malmo, Sweden, where bank worker and animal lover Chantal Jonkergouw helped start an online fundraising campaign to provide food and medicine for the crestfallen critters.
Almost $33,000 dollars was raised by the effort on generosity.com in less than two weeks and has already been put to use in paying staff, funding surgery on the lion's open wounds and feeding the big cats - several donkeys a day.
"It touches me anytime I see animals caged, exploited or starving," Jonkergouw told Reuters by telephone.
Acknowledging criticism that not just the animals but all of Taiz's 240,000 people are in dire straits, she said she and her team of online organizers would stick to their mission.
"People caused this conflict. Of course there are innocent people in trouble as well, but humans can often flee or develop some kind of alternatives. It's never the animals having this choice. It's not fair, and we have an obligation to help them."
(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Richard Balmforth)