A sliver of hope for last survivors of Mosul’s zoo
London - “A pungent odour of rotting animal flesh, carcasses and faeces filled the air at the zoo,” was the way veterinarian Amir Khalil described the scene in war-ravaged Mosul.
After Islamic State (ISIS) militants conquered Mosul in June 2014, the Mumtaz al-Nour Zoo became a base for the terror group’s operations. Residents who once fed the animals by hand could no longer visit. A few monkeys escaped but the remaining animals almost all died due to hunger and neglect.
Hunger turned some animals savage. A family of three lions was reduced to one, after the mother ate the father and eventually starved to death.
Almost everyone was deterred from entering the site and that allowed petty thieves to ransack the zoo.
The international animal welfare charity Khalil works for — Four Paws — reached eastern Mosul a few weeks ago as part of a mission to provide the few surviving animals — Simba the lion and Lula the bear — with food and urgent medical attention.
Lula was treated for pneumonia and Simba, having been kept in a cage far smaller than required for his size, was treated for joint pain.
Khalil expressed dismay that some bears were kept in 10 sq.m confines, “pacing up and down their cage”.
While the surviving animals make a slow recovery, the damage to their habitat resembles an apocalyptic wasteland littered with twisted metal and unexploded ordnance.
“Humans can flee, seek asylum and become refugees,” Khalil said in an interview via Skype, “but animals are always left behind, confined to their cages”. The Egyptian-Austrian veterinarian has a history of delivering specialist care in emergency situations to animals trapped by war.
Khalil was deployed at Zawrah Zoo in Baghdad during the invasion in 2003, providing urgent veterinary care. The scenes before Khalil in Mosul were no less harrowing as he arrived the same day Iraqi forces began their push deep into eastern Mosul.
“One of the cages was attacked by a missile; we witnessed this,” he said animatedly about the difficulty of working in combat settings. “You could hear and see bombs everywhere.
“While the army controls the city, ISIS is still on the run. It’s unsafe. Warning letters are everywhere, in a propaganda war from both sides.”
Unable to protect the animals from harm, residents and the zookeeper have welcomed Four Paws’s intervention. The zookeeper was injured in an attack, preventing him from visiting the zoo in person.
“Locals want to help but they lack the expertise to treat wildlife animals. They were unsure whether to feed them meat or vegetables,” Khalil said.
Locals, however, are indispensable for a more important reason. The charity travels widely not to take life out of devastated cities but, as Khalil said, “to deliver knowledge, know-how and respect. People do care but don’t know how to [provide] care.”
The training of local people and the creation of jobs keep the zoo from extinction and assists in the stimulation of economic life in a post-conflict situation.
“Local communities run the zoo on our recommendation and we return to follow up with the progress made,” Khalil said.
Although no decision has been reached, Khalil and Four Paws are negotiating the transfer of Simba and Lula possibly to Jordan where Al Ma’wa wildlife sanctuary in Jarash could offer a stable home to the surviving animals.
Khalil emphasised the duty to protect and care for the animals at risk of a violent death. He said he regards animals as innocent bystanders and the forgotten victims of human wars that rarely feature in political debate.