Rescuing The Baghdad Zoo

baghdad zoo image
On March 19, 2003, the United States begins its shock-and-awe campaign, with missiles raining down on Baghdad as the opening salvo of the Iraq war.

Four thousand miles away, at the idyllic Thula Thula Game Preserve in South Africa, wildlife conservationist Lawrence Anthony was following the war on TV.

"I was actually standing outside, looking at a herd of elephants, and it was two o'clock in the morning, and my attention just kept getting pulled back to the TV I'd been watching," Anthony told CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston. "And I thought, I've got to do something. I'm going to do something."

He knew people were dying, but he felt he could best use his skills to help the animals. In wartime, history shows, they are expendable. For example, at the Berlin Zoo up to 13,000 animals died during bombings in World War II.

Similar things happened when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. In fact, it was a bit worse, where soldiers were machine-gunning animals.

Anthony had no game plan, and no official backing.

"I fudged it a little bit," Anthony said. "When I was in South Africa, I eventually ended up phoning Centcom, Central Command, and I just said to them, 'Hello?' crossed my fingers and said, "I'm the guy who's going to take over the zoo in Baghdad. How do I do that? Who do I speak to?'
And they put me through to somebody in Kuwait. And I phoned them and said, 'Centcom said I should phone you!'"

A little more than a week later, as aid agencies and money started pouring into the city to help civilians, Anthony arrived at the gates of the Baghdad Zoo, the only person who came in to help the animals.

"I'm sure someone must have asked more than once; why were you so concerned about animals when there are so many people dying?" Pinkston asked.

"You can't separate man from the animal kingdom. We have ethical responsibilities. If we're going to cage wildlife we have to take responsibility."

When Anthony saw the zoo for the first time, it was "an absolute mess."

"The zoo had been a battleground, but the worst damage came from looters," he said. "Everything had been stripped. They'd stolen everything. They'd taken the toilets off the floors. Every door was gone. There were 650 animals and birds in the zoo before I arrived; when I got there, we were 30."

The city was starving, and people were stealing animals to eat them, except for animals that were big enough, strong enough or had big enough teeth or long enough claws that the looters couldn't take them.

One bear was in miserable condition, caked in months of dirt, filthy drinking water you could smell from meters away. "Really shocking condition," Anthony said.

He also said the lions were so thirsty they couldn't even drink, couldn't lap the water up.

When Anthony arrived, only a handful of zoo employees remained, including the senior veterinarian, Dr. Husham Hussan.

"I showed him that I had medicines and drugs and supplies," Anthony said. "And he just burst into tears."

For the first few weeks Anthony paid the workers and bought supplies out of his own pocket. And then the calvary arrived.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.