For some illogical, galling, apoplexy-inducing reason, zoos and animal sanctuaries are not (unlike hospitals) protected under the Geneva Convention. Which means that when war breaks out in a country, animals kept in captivity and entirely reliant on humans for their food, water, shelter, and safety are left to fend for themselves. While they’re still locked in cages and enclosures.
Marjan, the blind, starving lion who had shrapnel embedded in his fur, became the poster lion of the Afghanistan conflict. His is a haunting gaze and one that invokes immediate sympathy for him and guilt and shame at the inhumane actions of the human race. I’ll not deny that his and other animals’ collateral-damage plight makes me so angry I kind of want to punch someone in the face.
Which is, incidentally, why I was simultaneously eager and hesitant to read Lawrence Anthony’s Babylon’s Ark. Eager because I knew it would be an incredible tale told incredibly well at the hands of Anthony and his co-writer, Graham Spence (I’d recently stumbled across and fallen in love with another of their books, The Last Rhinos, which I rabbitted on about in raves on this here blog). Hesitant because, well, see above admission about knowing I’d be so incensed at the cruelty and injustice that I’d want to punch someone in the face.
Anthony was the first civilian into Iraq. In fact, he was the only one heading in as kilometres-long lines snaked their way out—something that drew the incredulity first of the border guard and subsequently the marines he met and befriended along the way. It’s just as well he had (has) such chutzpah, for the situation of the animals in Iraq, a country not known for having even the most basic modicum of concern for animal welfare, was dire.
With bombs landing in and around the parklands, the zoo was being looted left and right, with beautiful creatures killed for food or carted off for unspeakable black-market cruelty. The only animals left were the carnivores with big enough teeth and claws to fend off predators—and they were starved, dehydrated, ill, cramped in filthy, too-small cages, and unspeakably traumatised.
Anthony writes of the desperation to find buckets to cart water because the water pipes were blown up or stripped of any and all working parts. And of the euphoria at locating disinfectant in one of Saddam’s stockpiles-in-the-event-of-siege to start to clean rancid cages and start to eradicate the cesspit of germs infecting the animals: ‘Both the hotel and the zoo were government institutions, which meant they had belonged to the Hussein family, so I regarded this as just an “interdepartmental transfer”’.
There was a bear with a suppurating abscess on its hindquarters that was aptly named Wounded Ass. There was Saedia, the blind brown bear likely more terrified by the bombs and looting than all the other animals put together because she couldn’t see what was coming at her. There were the lions Saddam’s murderous (arguably insane) son Uday kept in his palace. There were the dogs that had formed an unlikely bond with the lions—even though all were starving, the lions hadn’t turned on the dogs.
That included him telling the story of the much-needed dart gun that was stopped at the border because it was deemed a ‘dangerous weapon’. ‘This caused real mirth in Baghdad,’ Anthony writes, ‘where bullets were whistling around the streets like in a bad gangster movie. Perhaps they considered the dart gun to be a Weapon of Mass Sedation.’ Meanwhile the scene with the ostriches, which I won’t give away here, literally had me crying with light-relief laughter.
The humour also included the story of how Anthony and Co. finally managed to dissuade some of the looters who daily stripped them of the animals’ barely-scraping-by supplies: by locking them in the enclosures and forcing them to help with the cage clean-ups. Suffice to say these ‘lootiman’, as one of the Iraqi staff dubbed them in his Iraqi-English, begrudgingly applied some elbow grease to the cage, and then didn’t return.
The book shows the soldiers in a softer light, too. Trained killers they may be (in fact, I still shudder at the thought of the term ‘pink misting’, which refers to the force of the firepower that literally vaporises people), many of them too went out of their way to help out. This included one anonymous solder who arrived unannounced on site and told Anthony he was going to duck to the loo and that he wanted Anthony to check that his ‘empty’ truck remained empty in the time he was away. Stored in the back was a desperately needed, impossible-to-source generator that enabled the zoo to fire up fridges to store food for the animals that was otherwise spoiling in the baking Iraq heat. I’ll admit that part may have made me completely weep.
As does the fact that the Baghdad zoo issues are indicative of the ones we’re facing in the wider world. Anthony writes:
I watched all of [the looting] with old, tired eyes. The symbolism was stark. This wasn’t only about Baghdad; it wasn’t about Iraq. It was about all of us. It’s what we are doing to our planet. Looting it.
I’m not sure what the answers are and I’ll not deny there are moments where I despair at the state of the world and what we humans are doing to it. But I’ll also say that I’m grateful that there are people like Anthony, armed with resourcefulness, determination, a wry wit, and masterful storytelling skills, trying to turn things around. If you haven’t yet read Babylon’s Ark, you’ll want to be rectifying that now.