The Baghdad zoo’s booze-swilling bears and laser-enhanced fish
The near-total destruction of Baghdad’s city zoo over the course of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, in retrospect, a grim portent of the poor planning and disastrous mismanagement that would characterize the early years of the Iraq war. The zoo had been the largest in the Middle East before the invasion, with more than ...
The near-total destruction of Baghdad’s city zoo over the course of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was, in retrospect, a grim portent of the poor planning and disastrous mismanagement that would characterize the early years of the Iraq war. The zoo had been the largest in the Middle East before the invasion, with more than 650 animals; eight days after coalition troops arrived in the city, however, all but 35 were dead. "All the Americans would’ve had to do is drop off 50 men, with a few vets and a truckload of food, and they wouldn’t have lost any of the animals," Lawrence Anthony, a South Africa conservationist who salvaged what was left of the zoo after the invasion, told me last year.
So it’s heartening to read a February 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, signed by embassy staffer Greg D’Elia and released by WikiLeaks over the weekend, detailing the Baghdad zoo’s resurgence as "reportedly … the most popular destination for family outings in Baghdad." As of late 2007, security in the city was still dicey enough that most of the zoo’s visitors came from the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. But as the worst of the brutal sectarian violence of the preceding years ebbed, some 8,000 Baghdadis were visiting each weekend, and the zookeepers could boast of some one-of-a-kind acquisitions:
[T]he Baghdad Zoo staff took particular pleasure in reclaiming for the Iraqi public the exotic animals formerly possessed by Saddam Hussein and his family. Uday’s pampered cheetah is now tame enough for visitors to pet. Two of Saddam’s three lions gave birth last year to three cubs each; now the Zoo has nine lions on display. The Zoo also has in its possession Saddam Hussein’s former stallion, Al Abor — "the most famous horse in Iraq," according to Mousa. Saddam Hussein rode Al Abor in countless parades and public ceremonies.
The best part of the cable is its account of the zoo’s "highlights and lowlights":
The Baghdad Zoo also featured some primitive practices, including the daily slaughter of two donkeys to feed the lions, and some modern flourishes, such as exotic fish with an image of the Iraqi flag lasered permanently into their scales. (NOTE: These fish sport the old Iraqi flag. Zoo staff could not predict whether they will employ laser surgery to amend these now-outlawed, swimming flags. END NOTE.)
Then there are the alcoholic bears:
To ease the trauma of the brown bears’ move from Saddam Hussein’s possession into the Zoo, staff reportedly plied them with copious amounts of Arak; visitors repeated rumors that the disheveled bears continue to imbibe this powerful drink.