In 1972, the city of Phoenix joined the Sister Cities International (SCI) movement by creating the Phoenix Sister Cities (PSC) program. The movement, started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, proposed a citizen diplomacy initiative, connecting people around the world.
“Phoenix currently has 11 sister cities, including Ramat Gan, Israel,” said Rita Marko, president and CEO of Phoenix Sister Cities. Ramat Gan became Phoenix’s sister city in 2005.
In the past, through the program, Phoenix has worked with Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts and Bar-Ilan University. Israel being the start-up nation and Ramat Gan located less than 8 km from Tel-Aviv, this is the next target of the sister cities. “That’s something Phoenix is particularly interested in, supporting start-ups. We’re just starting to explore what that might look like in terms of enriching that relationship,” Marko said.
According to SCI, “Relationships between sister cities develop from a number of sources, including but not limited to: pre-existing relationships with mayors, commercial relationships, historical ties, ancestral ties /demographics, expatriate communities, shared geographic/industry challenges, faith groups and personal experiences.”
“It’s like getting married. We develop a contract, much like a ketubah, where we outline each member’s responsibilities and what we hope to do together,” Marko said.
On June 14, such a “marriage” occurred between the Phoenix Zoo and Safari Ramat Gan. The relationship began over a decade ago when Bert Castro, President and CEO of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo, traveled to Ramat Gan with a delegation from the city and visited Safari Ramat Gan .
“I did some consulting there and also learned a bit about what they were doing,” he said. “They have a very extensive wild bird rehabilitation program. This area is one of the largest flyways of migratory birds in the world. Lots of birds go through it, so they do a lot of work when the birds get hurt to rehabilitate them back into the wild.
Three years ago, while Castro was in Argentina at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference, he met the new CEO of Safari Ramat Gan, Oren Ben-Yosef, and they had a serious discussion about the how the two zoos could work together.
At a June 14 event at the Phoenix Zoo, in front of guests Safari Ramat Gan staff and Roi Barzilai, deputy mayor of Ramat Gan, Yosef received a check for $10,000 for the vulture conservation program from his zoo.
“We have signed a memorandum of understanding which gives us a good platform to start talking seriously about how we can work together and maybe do goalkeeper swaps, learn more about each other’s educational programs and see how to work together on some conservation projects,” Castro said.
Dr. Paul Bendheim and his wife, Judith Amiel-Bendheim, a PSC volunteer, were also part of the audience during this presentation. Raised in Israel, Amiel-Bendheim lived in Ramat Gan for many years and the couple still have a home in the city.
Set on 250 acres and home to the largest collection of animals in the entire Middle East, Safari Ramat Gan is a favorite stop when the Bendheims visit Israel. “It’s a big area where the animals are free. [to roam], so you can drive your car and animals can come to your window. Then the second part of the zoo is like all other zoos, where the animals are in enclosures.
She enjoyed the stories shared by the keepers from Israel, especially the one about an unusual feeding method for an orphaned Eurasian griffon vulture.
“There was a vulture that was a baby and the mom died. So they used a drone to drop off some meat so the baby could get the food,” Amiel-Bendheim said. “It was high in the cliffs, so they couldn’t get to it.”
Castro added that “every bird matters” when working with such a critically endangered species as the Eurasian griffon vulture.
“To be able to use this kind of technology – working with the military, conservation officials and the zoo on this program – and having this kind of success was inspiring,” he said. “They also have a breeding program and are looking to build more space for additional birds and we thought the money could go into that program and help.”
The Phoenix Zoo raised more Rüppell’s griffon vultures “than anyone on the planet,” Castro said. Since Rüppell’s vulture is a cousin of the Eurasian vulture, he hopes to share some of the secrets of the zoo’s success with their Israeli counterparts.
Castro would also like Safari Ramat Gan to be involved in the Arabian oryx program. The antelope species was extinct in the wild in 1972. He shared that the Phoenix Zoo started the ‘mother herd’ from 13 animals and there are now 7,000-8,000 oryx in the world. Chances are, any oryx in a preserve, wildlife park, zoo, or in the wild can trace their lineage back to Phoenix.
“I think the world has gotten smaller when it comes to conservation,” Castro said. “It is no longer enough to focus on regional programs; we must work together across the world to ensure the success of these programs. We know we will be more successful if we all work together. jn