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Baghdad Zoo Recovering From War, Looting

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

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."

Another animal, an American brown bear, escaped and killed three Iraqis before being tranquilized and captured.

The cage of only one lioness - from Sudan - escaped damage and stayed in the zoo through the looting. All the other animals escaped or were stolen.

"The exotic birds were probably the first to go," said Army Capt. William Sumner, a member of the 354th Civil Affairs Battalion from Riverside, Md. Sumner is working with Bognar and zoo personnel to help rebuild the facility.

"The birds and other exotic animals are probably being smuggled to collectors in Europe or the U.S.," he said. "We've notified American and European customs officials to be on the lookout."

Looters stole two giraffes. Coalition officials know that one was killed for food and they are trying to locate the second.

A baboon escaped and is threatening people all over the zoo. Bognar said a veterinarian will shoot the baboon with a tranquilizer dart. Sumner said he was getting a number of volunteers to corral the baboon.

Adding to the zoo population have been animals from one of Uday Hussein's nearby palaces. Saddam's son kept lions and cheetahs there.

Sumner has gotten the zoo help from the 10th and 94th Engineer battalions. The 10th is based at Fort Stewart; the 94th in Vilseck, Germany. The units have sent welders, plumbers, carpenters and earthmovers to the zoo to help rebuild the cages and take down some of the trees felled by the fighting.

Plumbers will fix a water main that broke when an American Abrams tank fired up an enemy T-72 tank. "It was just bad luck the tank was sitting right over the main," Sumner said. "They really need this water to work."

Complicating fixing the water main is the unexploded ordnance around it. Sumner will get Army explosive ordnance disposal personnel to the area to check the ordnance and remove it or blast it in place.

All zoo employees have returned; the U.S. military is paying them until the interim government stands up. Veterinarians from around the world are coming into Baghdad to help the Iraqi docs.

Sumner is still getting equipment and help for the zoo, and Bognar is helping heal the animals traumatized by war and looting.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageStephan Bognar pets Uday Hussein's cheetah at the Baghdad Zoo. He is an international liaison officer for WildAid, a non-profit group based in San Francisco who is helping the coalitions and the Iraqis to rebuild the facility. Photo by Jim Garamone  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA 3rd Infantry Division soldier examines Uday Hussein's cheetahs at the Baghdad Zoo. American civil affairs soldiers and engineers are helping rebuild the zoo. It was trashed during the war and by the looting afterwards. Photo by Jim Garamone  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA note warns looters that the Baghdad Zoo is under coalition protection. The facility once was the largest zoo in the Middle East with more than 600 animals before March 19. Today, it has six. Photograph by Jim Garamone  
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