WASHINGTON, May 12, 2003 – It once was the largest zoo in the Middle East. The Baghdad Zoo had more than 600 animals before March 19. Today, it has six.
There was fierce fighting between the Iraqi Republican Guard and the 3rd Infantry Division in the area during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mortar rounds and tank released many zoo animals.
But the main damage was caused later, when looters came through the zoo and stole “all the animals that wouldn’t eat them,” said Stephan Bognar, an international liaison officer for WildAid, a non-profit group based in San Francisco.
The animals weren’t fed well for months before the start of the war, and after the launch of the ground war, the feeding ceased altogether.
“These animals were so hungry that when they escaped, they killed for food,” Bognar said. He is helping the Iraqi staff rebuild the zoo, and told a story about a lioness that escaped.
“She was starving, and she attacked and killed a horse,” he said. “U.S. soldiers came upon her as she was dragging the horse to feed on it. She saw them and attacked. The soldiers had no choice but to shoot her.”
On February 13-14, 1945, Allied bombers laid siege to the German city of Dresden. With the famous animal trainer, Otto Sailer-Jackson ran the extremely popular Dresden Zoo. As the bombing commenced, Sailer-Jackson was forced to consider the standing Nazi order that if human life was endangered, all carnivores must be shot. However, before he could take the lives of his beloved big cats, a new wave of bombers set the zoo ablaze. The animal trainer recalled the scene:
“The elephants gave spine-chilling screams. Their house was still standing but an explosive bomb of terrific force had landed behind it, lifted the dome of the house, turned it round, and put it back on again… The baby cow elephant was lying in the narrow barrier-moat on her back, her legs up to the sky. She had suffered severe stomach injuries and could not move.”
Three hippopotamuses were drowned when iron debris pinned them to the bottom of their water basin. In the ape house, Sailer-Jackson found a gibbon that, when it reached out to the trainer, had no hands, only stumps. Nearly forty rhesus monkeys escaped to the trees but were dead by the next day from drinking water polluted by the incendiary chemicals. For those animals that made it to the next day, the assault was far from over. A U.S. aircraft pilot came in low, firing at anything he could see was still alive. “In this way,” Sailer-Jackson explained, “our last giraffe met her death. Many stags and others animals which we had managed to save became victims of this hero.”
When a man or woman acts in a particularly repulsive manner, they are commonly and derisively called “an animal.” Like most everything, we humans have it backwards.
I’m reading Pride of Baghdad right now. It is based on the story of the lions that escaped the destroyed zoo; a story from the point of view of animals that should never have been behind bars to begin with. Animals that were then stranded in a place they never would have chosen to be, killed for not following rules they never agreed to. Killed just because they existed, because they were existing outside cages.
This isn’t to ignore the plight of the Iraqi citizens, who have suffered and are suffering horribly with the war. This is just to make sure we don’t forget that there are other casualties as well.