Rebuilt Baghdad Zoo A Sign Of Hope

baghdad zoo image
CBS
In the bedlam of Baghdad, the zoo seems more like an oasis.

But like its lions, the zoo is lucky to still be around, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

In the battle for Saddam's Baghdad, zoo animals were caught in the crossfire. Few survived - and just barely.

The big cats were found starving, some roaming the zoo grounds.

Five-hundred other animals disappeared, most stolen by looters. Some were sold, others … eaten.

Even now, the zoo's director winces remembering the worst moments.

Like slaughtering the ostrich to feed his starving lions.

"I was trying to save these rare animals," he said through a translator. "It was really important to save these animals."

Animals like Salimah the cheetah survived. Then the zoo was saved, too.

Only a few dozen of the zoo's original 560 animals survived the war. Now, the rebuilt zoo has more than 150 animals.

U.S. military civil affairs units helped the zoo restock animals like this hyena, and many other animals.

To the Iraqis, it's more than a zoo. It's a symbol of hope - and of getting their lives back. Walking around does feel peaceful, almost normal. So unlike Baghdad over the past five years.

This year, millions of Iraqis will see fish painted with the Iraqi flag.

It's the best cheap date in Baghdad - just thirty cents to get in.

"It's away from the gunfire, and away from their everyday lives," said Jacob Mattocks of U.S. civil affairs. "It's an escape, people from all different neighborhoods and sects and background come to the zoo, where they can all interact."

In this improbable story of survival, Iraqis see something else: a little bit of themselves.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.