Brendan Whittington Jones
An overhead view of al-Zawra park in Baghdad.
An overhead view of al-Zawra park in Baghdad. Brendan Whittington Jones
IT'S NOT KNOWN when Uday fled his palace, but it was probably around the same time the rapidly advancing American forces took Baghdad's international airport. When the Special Forces stormed the complex a few days later, it was deserted.
Well, almost. Bemused SF soldiers cautiously entering an unkempt patch of garden to the right of a massive entrance hall (where a decapitated statue of Saddam Hussein greeted them) came across a thick steel pen. It was about fifty yards long, thirty yards wide, and the fences were at least a story high.
In the cage, crouching together under the shade of a spiky-trunked palm tree, were three lions. And judging by their prolonged snarling, they were not happy.
However, Uday's lions, a male and two females, were luckier than their counterparts at the Baghdad Zoo, as food was immediately available. The soldiers found some sheep, emaciated to the point of death, locked in an enclosure nearby, and these unfortunate creatures were shot and thrown into the giant cats' cage, where they were gobbled up within minutes. Soldiers also fed the lions blackbucks they found corralled in another pen. Blackbuck, a small indigenous antelope, is considered a delicacy and was also apparently Saddam's favorite meal. A herd was kept at the palace to feed the Iraqi aristocracy. It was soon discovered that the loudest-growling lioness was heavily pregnant. Perhaps that was why she was more belligerent than the others, and the soldiers named her Xena after the fantasy warrior princess. The second female they named Heather; and the magnificently large male, Brutus.
The Special Forces, or Green Berets, as they are often known, soon adopted these three fierce felines as their mascots. So Husham and I decided to leave them where they were rather than move them to the zoo's enclosures. Their pen was not cramped by Iraqi wildlife standards. They had a sandy outside area among a few shady palm trees to stretch their limbs, and as the palace was close to the zoo, it was logistically simple to ferry food over each day. Indeed, they were being well cared for by the soldiers, who even had a notice up on the metal fence proclaiming: SPECIAL FORCES LIONS. DON'T MESS WITH THEM.
This was advice to heed. Uday's cats were far more bellicose than the listless lions in the zoo. When I first approached them, they leaped up to the fence, baring their wickedly pointed cuspids with curled lips. They seemed to have no fear of humans, possibly for reasons that we would only learn of later.
Not only were the lions considered SF mascots, but to my incredible good fortune, the American soldiers took a liking to me as well. I was known as the lion man of Africa who had come thousands of miles to rescue these cats. This reputation was unwittingly a major coup for the zoo. When you're accepted and backed by the crack Green Berets it certainly helps your street credibility.
The American Special Forces are arguably the best warriors in the world—I say "arguably" only because the British Special Air Service also claims the title. Suffice it to say that these superb soldiers are exemplary of George Orwell's pithy observation on the fragility of democracy: "Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
Thankfully for us, the Green Berets took us under their wing. They were among the few able to travel anywhere in the ransacked city at will, and when they had the time they sometimes used their awesome survival skills to forage essential food and supplies for the zoo. They did this purely as private initiative. As far as they were concerned, a crazy conservationist trying to rescue animals in a war zone couldn't be all that bad.
However, it was soon discovered that Uday's pride wasn't the only one in the vast Hussein royal residence complex that snaked along the banks of the muddy Tigris. The next day SF soldiers led Husham and me into Uday's palace through a maze of unimaginably opulent rooms and halls as high as cathedrals to a quadrangular garden. There in the middle was another fenced enclosure.
This was a different situation altogether, and as I entered the compound my stomach heaved at the rotten stench of ripe decay. The source was easy to identify: the decomposing carcass of an adult lioness stiffly sprawled near the fence, smothered with a seething shroud of buzzing flies.
Also in the enclosure were two cubs, about three months old. They came to the fence as I approached and, to my astonishment, I noticed a pair of skeletal dogs with them — A German shepherd and a Labrador retriever, with ribs jutting out like coat hangers. The hounds eyed me warily as they circled the cubs. The pen otherwise seemed deserted, so I opened the gate and walked in.
The gate clicked closed behind me. I had walked about twenty yards into the center of the enclosure when something roused in a dark corner ... something was getting up. It was a young male lion.
In the shadows there was another movement. Another lion. And from the opposite direction, barely visible in the shade, two more started padding toward me.
S—-! How many more were there? For a brief instant a terrifying thought jolted through my head; this was how the biblical Daniel must have felt in the lions' den.
I quickly assessed the situation. There I was in a closed cage with four starving meat eaters. There were not many leisurely options open.
I knew it was potentially fatal to turn and flee, for that almost always triggers an instant charge. The safest bet was to retreat slowly and not make eye contact. If you stare at a dangerous wild animal, it can interpret this as a threat and the eye contact may prompt an attack. A mellow backing off was always the best way to withdraw.
But it wasn't easy being mellow just now. Instead, I judged the distance and, believing I could make it, recklessly turned and fled for my life, yanking the cage door open with a strength I never knew I had.
Fortunately, the lions hadn't charged. Perhaps they were too starved and listless to muster the energy to give chase.
There was no explanation why the starving lions had not already killed and eaten the dogs. We guessed it was because the animals had huddled together through so much terror during the bombing raids that they had bonded in a way only nature could fathom, forging some mystical affinity that transcended the torment of hunger. Indeed, even in their sapped state, the two dogs were nuzzling and cuddling the cubs — testimony that nature is not always red in tooth and claw.
I decided that we would have to relocate these lions — along with two cheetahs cooped in an adjourning pen — to the Baghdad Zoo as soon as possible. The emaciated animals were in far worse conditions than the pride being cared for by the Special Forces, and their cages were rank beyond belief.
But how to move them all?
We had enough drugs to tranquilize just one animal. That left us with the extremely dangerous dilemma of confronting three others face-to-face inside the enclosures. And as the agitated youngsters were almost as big as cougars, some serious persuasion was going to be needed.
Lions have a savage reputation, and to the uninitiated they are probably the most fearsome of all wild animals. This reputation is rooted more in folklore than truth, and I, along with other wildlife veterans whom I know, would much rather come up unexpectedly on a lion in the bush than a black rhino or a big male buffalo in a reed bed. In fact, a startled bush pig is more likely to do you serious harm.
Like anything else, once a person has some understanding of lion behavior, they can be relatively predictable. In the wild they can spend up to twenty lethargic hours a day sleeping and resting, as they only hunt every three days or so, and generally want to be left alone to get on with their lives.
The problem was that these particular lions had just experienced a horrific aerial bombardment, as Uday's palaces had been a prime target, there was a rotting lioness in the enclosure with them, and they were starving and frightened. All of this made the situation extremely volatile.
The big question was: would the lions retreat when we came in, or would they challenge us?
Husham and I discussed our options, but they didn't look good. I was again forced to consider the last resort of simply shooting them all. The situation felt hopeless. But as we watched and talked, carefully studying the lions' behavior and temperament, we decided that a rescue attempt was perhaps possible. Our decision was based simply on the fact that despite one halfhearted mock charge at the fence where we were standing, the lions generally backed off or kept away whenever we approached the fence.
I looked at the lions and a feeling of pity and desperation came over me. These poor creatures, I thought, owned and abused by a cruel dictator, caged in alien surroundings far from their natural environment, afraid and intimidated, and yet there was still fight in them. They still had spirit.
Suddenly my mind was made up. "We can do this," I said firmly, hoping to inspire as much confidence as I could. "We must do it."
Husham and Abdullah nodded, and I was heartened by their positive attitude.
The ever-helpful Lieutenant Szydlik provided a truck with a crane and the zoo staff found some rusty transport cages that had been too heavy for the looters to carry off. So we were in business.
However, the main problem would be coaxing the felines into the mobile cages. Dr. Hussan and I had an on-site chat and came up with an idea that edged upon lunacy but — with a lavish dollop of luck — could work if everyone kept their nerve.
The plan was simplicity itself. Each lion had a cage that led into the communal open area where I had first stumbled onto the dogs guarding the cubs. At the back of each cage was a small door, about a meter high. If we placed a transport cage directly behind the slide-up door and drove the lions into their cages, then toward the open trap door, the cats would have nowhere to go but straight into the mobile cage.
That was the theory. Of course, only a barking mad idiot would have sanctioned such hairy tactics; there was a great deal of chance involved, but these were desperate times.
In the courtyard the zoo team found a junked fence gate — basically just a tubular steel frame meshed with plastic-coated chicken wire. This would be our shield, our sole buffer against about 150 pounds of spitting, snarling razors and daggers. I was hoping for something less flimsy, but it would have to do. It was all we had.
The radio in a troop carrier parked a few yards away clattered into life. It was an officer from Lieutenant Szydlik's base camp instructing the soldiers with us to return as soon as possible. One of the GIs walked over.
"Did you hear that?"
"We've got to move quick, man. Let's load these cats and go."
"How much time have we got?"
"Two hours max—even that's stretching it. But we may not get this crane again. This could be your only chance."
"Okay, let's get cracking."
We held a brief team talk and Dr. Husham translated the plan into Arabic for the other zoo employees.
I then asked two soldiers to stand at the fence with their M-16 rifles cocked and ready. Their job was to ensure the team was not attacked from behind by other lions and to shoot if this happened.
But, I stressed, lions often mock-charged and it was vital the soldiers fire warning shots first. Only at the last instant should they shoot to kill.
"How will we know the difference" one soldier asked.
"When I start screaming, shoot, and not a moment before," I replied, "and please don't hit us."
Husham and Abdullah Latif, one of the Kuwaitis, grabbed a side of the fencing each and, with me standing between them issuing instructions, we cautiously advanced toward the closest cat, a lioness.
The rest of the zoo staff formed a semicircle about five yards behind us — the "bull's horn" attack formation used with devastating effect by the great Zulu warrior Shaka. Slowly we inched forward, making no sudden movements, and the lioness started backing off warily, moving into her sanctuary, the cage.
So far, so good. Now to drive her out the small back door and into the transport cage. Abdullah and Husham gently edged the fencing into the cage and steadily pushed it toward the feline who was now barely three feet away. The lioness — hissing and baring her sword-sharp fangs — kept retreating, finally finding nowhere to go — except through the trapdoor into the transport cage. Once she was through, the door was immediately snapped shut.
Whew ... I expelled a noisy blow of relief, buckets of adrenaline dumping into my system. This was freaky stuff, and the possibility that somebody could get badly hurt, or killed, was frighteningly real. A derelict piece of fencing was a screwball defense against angry lions. But we had nothing else, and if we left the cats where they were, they would probably die.
"We were lucky that time," Husham said.
He was right. I knew what he was talking about. I had come to within a whisker of being attacked by lions in Africa several years beforehand after inadvertently driving slap bang into the middle of a pride of hunting lions.
It had happened on a dark night when Francoise, some friends, and I had been cruising slowly along a road that was little more than a dirt path when our tracker's spotlight picked up a lion crouched in the bush. Then another, and another. We realized that we were surrounded by a huge pride of lions, spread out through the veld around us. Up ahead, our headlights shone briefly on a herd of impalas. We were caught in the middle of a hunt, and all hell was going to break loose at any moment when the attack began. We stopped and, as is customary to deny advantage to either predator or prey, turned off all the lights and waited.
As we were watching and listening, the trap was sprung from behind the herd and the bush came alive with impalas and lions running frantically in all directions around us. I looked over and saw a large male impala hotly pursued by two lionesses darting toward us. The panicked buck bounded straight at our open Land Rover, jumping higher and higher as he got closer.
God, I thought, he is going to jump into the vehicle, followed by the lionesses.
I braced for the impact, and as I did so the buck and two lionesses hit the side of the Land Rover next to me in a screaming, tumbling crescendo of raw violence.
The heavy impact from the trio slewed the vehicle over on its suspension, and in the ensuing melee blood from the dying animal sprayed onto my face and jacket as the lionesses' massive teeth ripped open the impala's neck.
The impala was forced down and under the vehicle, and as more and more lions arrived and started trying to get at it beneath the Land Rover, the vehicle started rocking like a boat in surf.
Hearing a loud roar off on my right, I turned to see the huge alpha male loping in from the other side to claim the kill. For a split second I thought he was going to take the shortest route and climb over us. At the last moment he went under instead of over. Savagely shouldering the females out of the way, he dragged the buck out into the open right next to me. Suddenly he became aware of my presence, stopped, and looked straight up at me. His huge face was barely a yard or so away from mine in the open vehicle, his mouth and mane covered in blood and gore, his hunched shoulders snaked with wriggling cords of muscle. He stared straight at me, his eyes glistening like polished opals in the spotlight, and a chill shot down my spine. I averted my gaze and, moving very slowly, felt in my pocket for something to defend myself. All that was there was a cigarette lighter. Great. Perhaps I could singe his whiskers ...
To my relief, he broke the stare and continued feasting.
Fortunately, twenty-two lions (we counted!) will make short work of even a large impala buck. Soon all that was left was a chewed skeleton and the giant cats moved off.
But it was too close for comfort, nevertheless. A golden rule in the bush is that even though they generally are unlikely to attack you without provocation, you don't get too close to dangerous animals. Keep out of their immediate space and they will leave you alone.
HOWEVER, HERE IN BAGHDAD we had no option but to break the rules. We had to invade these lions' space — almost an invitation to attack — if we hoped to force them into the transport cages.
I didn't want us to be lulled into a false sense of security after the first, easy transfer and so called Husham aside, and we discussed ways to fine-tune the capture technique for the second lion. Whatever happened, he and Abdullah could not let go of the piece of fencing, the sole bulwark between us and the lion. If that went spinning, the cat would be onto someone at sonic speed. A charging lion is as fast and lethal as a runaway train, and as young as these were, it could be a deadly attack.
Getting the second lion into his cage proved relatively easy at first. But not for long. Just before entering the cage, the infuriated animal suddenly turned and hurled himself at the flimsy fencing. It was so sudden that Husham and Abdullah nearly dropped their shield. Quick as lightning the cat started clambering over it. Husham and Abdullah reflexively thrust the fencing upward, spilling the cat off the top. As he landed he went low, slithering like a snake. But Husham and Abdullah were fractionally faster, smashing the gate down to the ground a blink beforehand.
The lion then scrambled up the barrier again as the two men held fast with grim determination. I rushed to help them cling on, for if the berserk cat got through the chicken wire he would be among the staff in a flash.
It was a crucially close call; we were jerking the gate up as the lion attempted to scale over, then desperately yanking it down as he tried to scamper under. At times we would have to let go with one hand, arm muscles searing as we doggedly gripped onto a wafer-thin barrier being battered by a cyclone of rage.
And the racket! The lion was roaring at full decibel while the staff were either screaming in terror or yelling encouragement.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a TV crew set up and start filming. I groaned out loud. That's all we needed — crazy men being filmed trying to capture hungry lions. Or even worse, a real-life lion attack being beamed into a million living rooms.
Then the lion backed off for a moment. He lay crouched on his stomach facing us, ears flat, snarling and switching his tail — sure signs he was on the verge of attacking again.
"Leave the fencing," I hissed urgently to Husham. "Let's wedge it against the wall to trap him and wait for everything to calm down."
The pandemonium was just what I had been dreading. The whole aim was to relocate the animals with as little trauma as possible. Well, as little as possible under the desperate circumstances. I was also very concerned about the possibility of inducing capture myopathy, a condition brought on in an animal by the stress of game capture that often leads to death. We needed to stop for a while.
We slowly retreated out of the cage. In the enclosure one of the other cats, a lioness, had climbed high into an Albizia tree while another attempted to dissolve into the shadows on the far side of the den. Both had obviously been spooked by the ruckus, and there could be problems in capturing them later as well.
The good news was that during the mayhem zoo workers had nabbed the two lion cubs by the scruffs of their necks and they were now in a cage with their friends the dogs, ready to go.
I sat cross-legged on the ground, mentally going over our seat-of-the-pants capture system again and again, step-by-step, trying to visualize improvements. The Iraqis, meanwhile, used the break as prayer time, prostrating themselves toward Mecca. It was Friday, I suddenly realized, and the muezzin was calling the faithful to pay homage. The fact that these men were prepared to work — indeed, to risk their lives — at this holy hour was powerful testament to their dedication. I hoped they were praying for a successful capture.
Half an hour later we returned to the cage and this time I insisted on absolute silence and fewer people in the "bull's horn" behind us. Only I was permitted to speak, and that was solely to give instructions. Fewer people meant less commotion and less claustrophobia for the lion. I also wanted fewer of my men in the firing line; I was profoundly aware that the fencing was all that held back an enraged wild animal equipped with fangs as sharp as butchers' knives.
By now the lion appeared to have calmed down, and as Abdullah and Husham began nudging the fencing gently forward again, he turned, bolted out through the trap door, and was captured. The prayers had worked!
The third lion was the easiest, as his brother and sister were already in their separate transport cages and he was eager to join them, scudding through the trap door quickly as Husham and Latif approached.
The last lioness, which had been up a tree watching the proceedings with interest, suddenly climbed down and ran into the main cage by herself. This was going to be easy, I thought to myself.
A few minutes later I regretted my optimism. For once in the cage, the lioness swiveled and faces us, slashing at the fence while Abdullah and Husham held on with bone-white knuckles.
Then she backed into a corner and refused to budge, roaring at the two men. Suddenly someone behind us, thinking they were helping, leaned over and threw a bucket of water over the poor creature. She went ballistic, jumping at the fence and slashing dementedly.
"It's no good," I said, by now concerned at the feline's frenzy. "This one we must sedate."
"Dr. Husham agreed and went to fetch a hypodermic syringe and the last ampoule of our drugs.
On his return, a dapper gray-haired man who had been watching in the background stepped forward and took the syringe from Husham. As the team jammed the yowling cat between the gate and cage bars, he reached over and at arm's length injected the lion. Within minutes the animal was out for the count and gently carried into the transport cage.
This was Dr. Adel Salman Mousa, the zoo's director, whom Husham had told me about. Although he had visited the zoo several times before, we somehow had always missed each other. But today some American soldiers back at the zoo had told him we were at the palace and he hurried over to meet us. Husham introduced him to me — and the look of gratitude on Adel's face now that he had some outside assistance for his beloved zoo reminded me of why I had come to Baghdad. I knew right away that we were going to become friends.
The cheetahs were far weaker than the lions and, despite putting on a token snarling show, were relatively easily rounded up. All the animals were then transferred to the zoo as rapidly as possible, as the soldiers were now needed for night patrols around the city's Red Zones — the danger areas where safety catches on weapons were always kept off.
The lions, although emaciated, had had full run of the open-air enclosure and were in a redeemable condition considering their dire circumstances. But the cheetahs had been cooped up in tiny pens and were in a terrible state. The zoo vets immediately got them food and water, then inspected them thoroughly. They were smothered in lice and mange and so wasted they would have died within days. One also had a nasty leg injury and was limping. The vets sprayed the wound with antiseptic, as any infection in the foul cage she had been cramped up in could be life threatening.
To my surprise, the rescue of the palace cats had gone perfectly. A few men had got into a den with four angry young lions and virtually barehanded corralled them into transport cages. And not one had even been scratched. And a good thing it was, too, for we had no first-aid kit and didn't even know where the nearest hospital was.