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Rescuing The Baghdad Zoo

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.

The U.S. Army didn't have any formal plans for the zoo, so they improvised.

"Individual American soldiers [were] absolutely outstanding," Anthony remarked. "These chaps were fighting a war, they had plenty on their plates. And I mean, they would come back at the end of the day, put their rifles down, pick up a shovel, and get involved or do whatever was needed, say, 'How can I help'?"

And then there was Capt. William Sumner, who was assigned to the Iraqi National Museum, which had also been looted. One day he asked a superior officer if there was anything else he could do to help.

"He said, 'well, there's this little zoo, can you go take a look at it?'" Sumner said. "I thought it was like a petting zoo or something. I had no inkling and I had no background skills and I showed up and basically said I'm in charge of the place. By the way, I'm an archaeologist."

Very quickly, Capt. Sumner, Anthony and their team became the go-to guys for every stray or endangered animal in Baghdad. There were pelicans, hyenas, and porcupines, Saddam's stolen Arabian horses. They rescued dogs from cages, and lions, cheetahs and bears from Saddam's son Uday's palace.

Their work was both dangerous and at times surreal, like their adventure with a sick camel.

"We nicknamed him Lumpy," Sumner said. "And he had actually come close to dying. We jammed him into the back of our Humvee, strapped him down, and he drove with us to the zoo with his head poking between us all the way over, and he was enjoying himself."

Four months after Lawrence Anthony and Capt. Sumner took control, the Baghdad Zoo officially re-opened to the public. The first visitors were children from a local orphanage. The zoo is now completely in the hands of the Iraqis.

Overall victory remains elusive four years into the war in Iraq. Still, there have been many small, untold success stories, hints of hope. Saving the Baghdad Zoo, it seems, is one of them.

The new book "Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo," written by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence, has been published by Thomas Dunne Books.

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