Author Describes Rescue of Baghdad's Zoo Animals Lawrence Anthony, co-author of the book, Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo, explains how he helped rescue the animals of the Baghdad Zoo following the invasion of Iraq.
NPR logo

Author Describes Rescue of Baghdad's Zoo Animals

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Author Describes Rescue of Baghdad's Zoo Animals

Author Describes Rescue of Baghdad's Zoo Animals

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, environmentalist and animal conservationist Lawrence Anthony watched CNN's round-the-clock coverage of the destruction of Baghdad from his home in rural South Africa. The carnage he saw on TV made him wonder what's happening to the animals at the Baghdad Zoo.

Anthony was already familiar with the fate of animals caught in conflict. He'd seen it in Kosovo, Kuwait and Afghanistan, all former war zones in which local zoo populations were forgotten and left to die or sometimes machine gunned to death just for the fun of it. Anthony decided he didn't want the same to happen in Iraq and began the rescue at the Baghdad Zoo. Anthony chronicles the story in his new book, "Babylon's Ark."

If you have questions for Lawrence Anthony about how he managed to save Iraq's zoo animals amidst the chaos of post-invasion Baghdad, give us a call. 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us an e-mail:

Lawrence Anthony is with us here in Studio 3A. He's the founder of Earth Organization, a grassroots group which supports conservation and environmental causes, and coauthor of the book, "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo." Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. LAWRENCE ANTHONY (Co-Author, "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo"): Thank you very much, Neal. I'm pleased to be here.

CONAN: And what did you know about the Baghdad Zoo before you started on this mission?

Mr. ANTHONY: Neal, all I knew was that it was the biggest zoo in the Middle East. That Saddam Hussein had recently renovated the zoo and that it was going to be in a lot of trouble.

CONAN: There's a fascinating part of the book in which you remember as you're sitting there in South Africa, perfect safety and, you know, idyllic surroundings, at least as you describe it, but you remember the fate of that lion in the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, Marjan.

Mr. ANTHONY: Marjan the lion, yes. Absolutely. He was blinded. He had a hand grenade thrown at him. He was left starving in his cage. It was just a horrific situation. That zoo suffered terribly as well.

CONAN: And so you determined that you needed to go to Iraq to find out what was going on, what you could do to help. And in fact you were - at least as described by the soldiers when you crossed the line from Kuwait into Iraq -they said you're the first civilian to go into Iraq after the war. Except for newsies. They don't count.

Mr. ANTHONY: Yeah. I remember that well, in fact. They said to me you're the first civilian and keep your head down. It's dangerous in there. You know, I remember the statement.

CONAN: And indeed it was. I mean, after a while in Baghdad you realized that the journey you took from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad was insanely dangerous and you were incredibly fortunate to have made it.

Mr. ANTHONY: Well, when I was in Kuwait and watching the TV what I saw was statues of Saddam Hussein coming down, crowds in the street cheering, hitting pictures of Saddam Hussein with their shoes, and it was all over. It was only when I got close to Baghdad then I realized it wasn't all over at all.

CONAN: And when you got to the zoo - again, this was supposed to be a fact finding mission, a reconnaissance, if you will, to find out what was going to be necessary and then contact outside groups to bring in whatever supplies were necessary. But when you go to the Baghdad Zoo - and I should say you were accompanied by two Kuwaiti zookeepers as well - that you found an absolute disaster.

Mr. ANTHONY: It was just absolutely horrific, absolutely horrific. And, you know, I was shown around the zoo by one of the directors there. Wonderful man. And my first thoughts were, in fact, just to get a rifle and shoot the animals. It was absolutely terrible.

CONAN: Shoot the animals. That was the only humane way to deal with the situation?

Mr. ANTHONY: Well, I just couldn't see with a city at war and I now saw the environment, there was no food anywhere. We didn't have water. Everything had been looted. There's no possible means of getting supplies or equipment. How would we - and the animals were, I mean, starving, dehydrated, in horrific condition.

CONAN: The looters, in fact, had already broken into the zoo and...

Mr. ANTHONY: They took it - they cleaned it out.

CONAN: And not only the infrastructure. Any animal that they could grab was taken away and presumably either sold or eaten.

Mr. ANTHONY: Absolutely. If it didn't have fangs big enough or claws big enough to protect itself, they took it. And Baghdad was starving at the time. The city was starving so, you know, they were eating the animals.

CONAN: There was one bear who made sure that he was not on the menu.

Mr. ANTHONY: Saedia, Saedia the bear. He actually killed three looters.

CONAN: And when you got there, their behavior, you describe it as stereotypical. They had been so traumatized that they could only walk back and forth in the same pattern around their cages.

Mr. ANTHONY: Yeah, it's stereotyping. You'll see that with unhappy or traumatized, stressed animals in enclosures. They just walk, pacing up and down, going nowhere. They just, you know, switch off, and they're just walking up and down. This was happening with a number of the animals.

CONAN: And it was fascinating that you needed to, you thought, make some connection with each of the animals every day. You would go to their cage and make sure that somehow they acknowledged you.

Mr. ANTHONY: You have to do that. If you're working with animals in those circumstances, you have to do that. They have to know you're there, and that connection - you know, a lot of people who don't understand that may, you know, look askance at it, but if you've had anything to do with animals, if you've worked with wild animals, worked in a zoo, you'll understand. You can connect with them.

CONAN: But as important as the animals, of course, you also needed to work with the staff of the Baghdad Zoo, of which you only found, what? Two or three people, initially.

Mr. ANTHONY: Correct, correct. Very important. You know, it's - the zoo is an organism. I mean, the staff have to be there. They have to be getting food themselves, which they weren't. They were, you know, as hungry as the animals were. So we had to look at the thing holistically and say we'll take care of staff. We've got to clean the cages. We're going to raise hygiene levels. We're going to get the animals out of crisis, which was quite a performance. There's a war going on.

So it was just that fantastic people arrived to help me, the zoo director's brave, wonderful men. Individual American soldiers, you know, got involved and helped, just fantastic assistance. People - you know, everybody in their spare time would do something to help the zoo, and we had mercenaries who were over in Iraq. They would come in and offer protection at times.

So it was a collaborative effort. It was absolutely fantastic to see people -we had guys who came in back to the zoo staff who were Republican Guards within 10 days of fighting a war against American forces, and they would be working with American soldiers in the zoo, playing football with them in the afternoon. It was just fantastic.

CONAN: There's a great story that you tell. One of your greatest problems was, of course, electrical power, which of course everybody in Baghdad, and indeed Iraq, was having problems with that at the time.

Mr. ANTHONY: Correct.

CONAN: You needed a generator, and some day, a guy drives up in a truck and looks at you and says this truck came here empty, and it's going to leave empty. Take a look and make sure that it's empty while I go over and relieve myself over there.

Mr. ANTHONY: That's exactly what happened. We were desperate. It was pitch black at night. There's a war going on, it was dangerous at night at the zoo, and this man arrived. And he had an American Army truck, and he said check the truck. I went to the back, and there was a generator still in its plastic wrapper. He'd lifted it from somewhere. We lifted - we got it off. It was heavy as hell, I remember. We got it off. And he just said, thank you, my truck is as empty as I came. I never saw him again, but he was just fantastic.

CONAN: All of the effort that these people - Iraqis and, as you say, political opponents, Americans or these mercenaries and people from South Africa that you ran into as well - in a way, it seems like it was easier to rally around the cause of these animals than it was to rally around anything else.

Mr. ANTHONY: Well, you know, as the invasion sort of settled down, there were all sorts of help groups coming in for people, you know, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and hundreds of - you know, Oxfam, we're getting - hundreds and hundreds of groups eventually got in. And if you think about it, the only people that were there looking after the zoo was myself. There were no contingency plans at all, and a bunch of people who wanted to try and help.

I mean, we didn't have any food for the animals. We were going onto the streets of Baghdad and buying donkeys, you know, and bringing them back and slaughtering them in order to feed the lions and the tigers. There was just nothing. We would loot - when I say loot, in inverted commas - and American soldiers would take me in their Humvees, and they'd tie them off to bombed palaces.

And you know, I would go into the kitchens and just load up everything I could find in Saddam Hussein's palace kitchen, you know, in Uday Hussein's palace kitchen, and load them on. And these chappies would drive these supplies back to the zoo for me, and we would dish them out to the staff, you know, and feed the animals.

CONAN: When somebody else does it, it's looting. When you do it, it's liberation.

Mr. ANTHONY: Well, I figured that the zoos were owned by the Hussein family, and the palaces were owned, so it was an inter-departmental transfer.

CONAN: Our guest is Lawrence Anthony. He's the co-author of the book, "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo". If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail: Let's talk to Anna. Anna's calling us from Salem, Oregon.

Mr. ANTHONY: Hi, Anna.

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that I think what you did and what the people that helped you did was really incredible.

Mr. ANTHONY: Thank you, thank you very much.

ANNA: I had a question about the graphic novel, "Pride of Baghdad", which talks about four lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo.

Mr. ANTHONY: Correct.

ANNA: How much of that was - well, I mean, obviously, the lions talking (unintelligible)...

CONAN: The part where they talk to each other, that was fiction, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNA: Right. How much of the story do you know about, and how much of it really happened?

Mr. ANTHONY: Yeah, I'm afraid that they never escaped. What happened is they escaped - a number of lions escaped, and they were corralled back into their enclosure again. Three wouldn't go back in, and all three were shot. So the lions never got out and walked around, as was described in the other book, I'm afraid.

ANNA: I see. Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Anna, thanks very much for the call.

Mr. ANTHONY: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're talking with Lawrence Anthony. Again, he's the author of "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo". If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

In those early, dark days when you were dubious that anything could be done, you also found other private zoos in Saddam's palace and Uday's palace, where he kept tigers that were, at least by repute, the executioners of people he didn't particularly like - it could be anybody. You found a thriving market underground, black market, in exotic animals, which was appalling, to say the least.

You decided that you needed to stay in Baghdad and finish this because something had to be done. You said you needed to draw a line. Tell us about that decision.

Mr. ANTHONY: Well, you know, if I left Baghdad, and in fact I didn't know if I could leave. I didn't know if I could get out at that point. My car was gone. But we had to take a decision - I had to take a decision. I had to say enough and no more with this. Zoos have been going through this for a long time.

If you go back to the Second World War, the Berlin Zoo, it's reputed that 13,000 animals died. Thirteen thousand animals died. Apparently, you could hear them calling all over the city at night, and it's just gone on like that ever since. They are never - there are no contingency plans. We have these huge, first-world nations, well-funded armies - Britain, America, you know - and there are no contingency plans for wildlife in war zones, and this is something we're addressing in the Earth Organization at the moment, in fact.

In fact, one of my primary reasons for being in Washington is to meet with the Pentagon about this exact issue, and we're getting a wonderful response from them so far, I must say.

CONAN: After a while, the provisional coalition government did provide a liaison and director - you know, sort of official recognition of what you were doing, but it took a while, and it was not exactly the top of the priority list.

Mr. ANTHONY: Yeah, well, Captain William Sumner came in, 354 Special Affairs Division, and one of the most wonderful people I've ever met. He's being awarded this evening for his work there, and he was absolutely fantastic.

He was an archeologist helping out at the zoo, and you know, every Army in the world's the same. They sent an archeologist to work at the zoo, but we couldn't have had anybody finer. and eventually the American Army got involved, made a lot of funds available, did a tremendous amount of rehabilitation work in the zoo, and that's what we want them to continue doing.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tamani(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Columbus, Ohio.

TAMANI (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TAMANI: Yeah, I was calling to speak with your...

CONAN: With our guest. He's right here. Go ahead with your question, please.

TAMANI: Yes, sir. After the horrific experience you have witnessed in Iraq, I was wondering if you still believe that is necessary for us to have a zoo. That's my question.

Mr. ANTHONY: Yeah, well, I think zoos are all over the - you know, I personally don't believe in the concept of zoos. I went to Iraq for the animals. And with the exception of a few zoos in first-world countries today, where there's proper habitat, I don't believe that zoos should be allowed to continue.

But, you know, one can have facilities in countries like Iraq, but then we should be staying with the animals - the indigenous animals of that country and not be bringing in alien animals for people to gawk at. And really, it's not that Iraq is an exception here. This is the case right throughout Africa, right throughout Asia, South America. We just have horrific zoos everywhere.

TAMANI: Thank you, sir. That's what I think myself. I don't think we should, you know, put animals in jail - to me, it's a jail - just because they cannot speak. So thank you for that.

CONAN: Tamani, thank you very much for the call. Though, I did want to point out, there is a moment when you go and rescue some animals from one of these even-worse places, and you're bringing them back in a convoy through Baghdad, and people come out on the streets. You describe men lifting their children onto their shoulders so they could look and applaud and have a moment of lightness. Surely, those animals in that moment performed a function that nothing else could do.

Mr. ANTHONY: Absolutely. I remember that very clearly. In fact, it happened on a couple of occasions. But, I mean, you know, camels sitting on the back of Humvees, and at one stage we had ostriches on armored troop carriers. And the interest that attracted (unintelligible) people were clapping and cheering in the streets as these animals came past. It was absolutely fantastic.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this is Omar, Omar calling us from Minneapolis.

OMAR (Caller): Yes. I'm hoping you're not going to tell me get off the phone, Omar stop calling. My question is: Where was - I mean, did you - first of all, thanks for your effort saving these animals, because this was the only proactive effort ever done by the coalition - not by the civil part, but with, you know, the help of the coalition.

CONAN: And get to the question, Omar, if you would. We're running out of time.

OMAR: My question is did you remove the animals completely from the zoo and put them back in the zoo, or they stayed all the time in the zoo, and were they angry at (unintelligible)? That's my question, thanks.

Mr. ANTHONY: No, the animals were all at the zoo. They stayed at the zoo. The zoo was upgraded, renovated and improved. There's still a long way to go, but it was left a better zoo than we found it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the animals are there now?

Mr. ANTHONY: The animals are all still there now, yeah.

CONAN: And the zoo has been relatively free of the strife that's hit every other part of Baghdad?

Mr. ANTHONY: Absolutely. There hasn't been a bomb. There hasn't been any shooting in the zoo or the park area, which is absolutely fantastic.

CONAN: You describe the zoo, in fact, as the first part of Baghdad that was rebuilt by its own citizens.

Mr. ANTHONY: Absolutely. Exactly what happened.

CONAN: The story is told in "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo" - Lawrence Anthony, along with Graham Spence. Lawrence Anthony, thanks very much for coming in to speak with us today.

Mr. ANTHONY: Thank you. Neal, can I just mention that I am speaking in town tonight?

CONAN: Go ahead, very quickly.

Mr. ANTHONY: Okay, I am speaking in town tonight, 181219 Southwest Street, and it's at the L. Ron Hubbard House. I have been invited. I will be speaking. Anybody who wants to come around, you're welcome. Please come. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thank you again, Lawrence Anthony. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.