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Dogs and (big) cats living together

The volunteers and U.S. troops trying to save Baghdad's zoo animals encounter many strange sights.

Published June 1, 2003

In Baghdad, where there is too little food and too much gunfire, what do you feed 19 lions?

"Donkeys," Lawrence Anthony says. "I send people out to buy donkeys, three a day if we can find them. With 19 lions, it takes three donkeys a day."

Solving such problems is Anthony's job these days. The conservation specialist, who runs the Thula Thula game reserve in his native South Africa, went to Baghdad about a month ago to become the administrator of the Baghdad Zoo.

Anthony, 53, spent several days in California last month meeting with officials at zoos in Los Angeles and San Diego, raising money for animal relief in Iraq. He spoke in a phone interview about his experiences in Baghdad.

Under what he cheerfully calls impossible circumstances, he and a group of volunteers have worked with the U.S. military to salvage the zoo from artillery damage, looters and cutoffs of the food, water and power supplies. In their spare time, they're rescuing animals from private zoos all over the city.

The Baghdad Zoo, run by Saddam Hussein's government and the largest in the Middle East, was home to more than 600 animals. In April, when U.S. troops entered the city, the 2,500-acre park that includes the zoo was the site of a major battle between Republican Guard forces and the 3rd Infantry Division.

Artillery fire destroyed and damaged cages; Anthony says it was impossible to determine whether animals were killed during the battle. The fighting kept zoo employees away, leaving the animals without food or water for days.

And then the looters came.

Hundreds of animals disappeared, Anthony says. Some escaped, but the majority "were liberated, for food or for sale."

Starving Iraqis, their food supplies curtailed by war, probably ate "the plump, juicy ones, like the ducks," he says. There are rumors that a giraffe ended up in someone's cookpot.

The rest of the animals were booty, bound for the thriving black market in exotic species in Baghdad, Anthony says.

The few animals not looted were mostly large predators; even an ambitious looter might be reluctant to take on a lion or cheetah. One American brown bear escaped from its cage and killed three Iraqis before it was recaptured, the Department of Defense Web site reported.

When Anthony arrived, he found the remaining animals in trouble.

"The first thing to do was take the zoo out of crisis," he says. Even before the war, economic sanctions against Iraq had affected the animals. "The sanctions meant shortages of proper food, shortages of medications."

After the battle, the animals' cramped cages quickly became dangerously dirty, and food was so scarce that when more vulnerable animals died, they were fed to the survivors.

Beyond the zoo, the city was in chaos. "The first week, there was a lot of shooting. We heard 500 to 1,000 shots a day," Anthony says.

Looters were a serious threat. "So we created our own jail," Anthony says. "We got American soldiers to help us, and they said, "Good idea.' " He says they rounded up about 50 looters and held them for a week in a makeshift jail.

Since then, "We still have the odd looter, but things are much more in control. They've gone elsewhere."

Anthony says that U.S. soldiers "have been fantastic." From securing the zoo and protecting volunteers to feeding their MREs to the animals and bringing home a wayward baboon found 5 miles from the zoo, "They were just doing it, including the guys at the top."

Anthony was appointed zoo administrator by Capt. William Sumner of the 354th Civil Affairs Division. "They put him in charge of two things: the museum and the zoo," Anthony says of Sumner. "Can you imagine, he goes from hunting down ancient tablets to finding food for tigers."

With the zoo saved from disaster, Anthony has been busy recovering animals stolen from its cages and others held in private zoos around Baghdad, including a couple owned by Uday Hussein. U.S. troops have conducted raids to recover some privately held animals, he says.

"I encountered this strange phenomenon at the zoos: They have dogs in cages. Beagles, pointers, Labs, what have you. For them, dogs are exotic," he says.

Because many Muslims believe that their religion teaches that dogs are unclean, they don't keep dogs as pets and even avoid touching them. So the dogs Anthony found in zoos were filthy and unkempt.

"We found Christian Iraqis, vets and other people, and gave them all the dogs to take care of," he says.

But dogs alone in cages weren't the strangest phenomenon. When several lions, including some half-grown cubs, were found in one of Uday Hussein's palaces, Anthony says, "I saw dogs in the lion enclosure. The dogs were living with the lions. These lions were starving; they should have eaten the dogs."

But apparently the dogs had been put in the enclosures when the cubs were babies, and they had bonded. "The dogs were looking after the cubs," barking to defend them from intruders, Anthony says.

After the animals were taken to the Baghdad Zoo, the dogs, mixed breeds Anthony calls "pavement specials," were separated from the lions. The cubs became so unsettled, he had to move the dogs into an adjacent cage. "The bond is breaking gradually," he says, and U.S. soldiers are adopting the dogs.

The zoo once again houses more than 200 animals, and Anthony looks forward to opening it to the public, although he can't estimate when.

"It's absolutely worth saving. It's a newly built zoo, but it's still all concrete floors and steel bars, and of course, that will have to go," he says.

But the park around the zoo has "magnificent grounds, irrigation, green grass; it's just this beautiful lung in the middle of the city. It's a favorite place for families." Last year the zoo had more than 1-million visitors.

Anthony's visit last week to the Los Angeles Zoo resulted in a plan to take zoo staff members from Baghdad there for apprenticeships to learn modern zoo practices. (The Baghdad Zoo's previous two directors had never visited a modern zoo.)

"It's so important to bring them into the international community of zoos" in order to educate the Baghdad staff and to raise money to get their zoo up and running again, Anthony says.

For the past six years, Anthony and his wife have run Thula Thula, a private game reserve and lodge near Durban, South Africa. The reserve is home to elephants, rhinos, leopards, giraffes and hundreds of other species.

Visitors stay in luxury versions of thatched houses; the lodge offers fine dining along with elephant viewing and game walks.

Although it's a very different environment from an urban zoo, Anthony says his work involves the human community as well as the animals. "Under apartheid, and before that, during colonial times, the Zulu people lost their culture of conservation," he says, "but they've made huge progress."

Educational techniques that help revive their folklore revering nature are one tool. "We're trying to bring it into modern Zulu society."

Those conservation techniques incorporating a community got Anthony to Baghdad. "We have a number of diplomatic visitors at Thula Thula," he says, and some American diplomats' interest in his work led to his being asked to go to Baghdad.

His wife, Francoise Malby, is running Thula Thula in his absence. Anthony has taken his game reserve manager to work with him in Baghdad for three or four months. He says that he has no idea how long he'll be there himself.

Anthony has nothing but praise for the Baghdad Zoo's staff, which struggled to care for its charges with dwindling resources and, for some time, no pay: "There are some quite committed people there," he says. Only three staff members were there when he arrived, but now all 35 staff members have come back to work.

They're getting paid again, too, because of donations and the U.S. military. "The staff were hungrier for food than the lions," Anthony says.

There is still no electricity, but the staff has figured out a way to pump water from a lake. It is struggling to feed the animals. "We're still in crisis. The food ran out the day I left," Anthony says.

Time to shop for donkeys.

- Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435.


To donate to the effort to save the Baghdad Zoo, go to and click on "Make a Direct Donation to Protect the Animals at the Baghdad Zoo."

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 10:05:15]

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