Last Thursday night, a drunken American soldier amongst a
group late-partying with guns and beer at Baghdad Zoo, shot dead Mendouh, one of the two surviving Bengal tigers. With the commitment of the zoo staff, Mendouh had survived two wars, and the draconian thirteen year embargo.
A soldier, says the Zoo's Director, Dr Adil Salman Musa, was poking food at her through the bars of her cage. Such idiocy defies comment. When she bit off his finger and scratched his arm, one of his colleagues shot her three times through the head. There is now one less of this beautiful endangered species, of which an estimated only between two and five thousand are left on earth. But in a country where the hospital morgues now overflow into the car park and a US soldier recently told a commentator: "We're in the business of population control", a tiger would hardly register.
For the thirteen years of the embargo, Baghdad's famous zoo, spreading over countless acres - whose animals inhabited compounds seemingly as limitless as if they were in the wild - struggled to survive.
With the population deprived of food and medicine, the formerly pampered animals came way down the list of primary care. No one fought with more passion for them than Dr Musa. When one of the then three Bengal tigers became ill, he scoured Baghdad for penicillin and finally amassed enough to treat her. He could not, however, find a stun gun: "So I held held her tail, while the vet injected her". He said solemnly "This is a very dangerous practice." Indeed, a tiger by the tail. Literally. I took a photograph of the tigers, rolling, playing together in the sun. A family nearby laughed at me. Iraqis love photographs of every activity they engage in - but could no longer afford even film. "What do we have to do to get a photograph? Get in the cage with the tigers?", joked the father.
In spite of Musa's Hurculean efforts, rare animals died in numbers. The great brown bear lay in what Musa said was 'severe depression' for three years. She looked through the bars lethargically with great mournful eyes. What she missed was her large pool, which she previously joyously immersed herself in, grunting with delight. With the destruction of the water system in 1991 and vetoing of parts subsequently by the US driven UN Sanctions Committee, just dark sludge replaced her sparkling bath.
On one visit the majestic lion, refused to come out of his lair - designed like a cave - and sit under the palms. His ceaseless roars reverberated, echoing across the zoo. "His mate has died, lions usually mate for life"said Musa, "he is pining." He died two months later, refusing what food there was, or to come out. in spite of brave coaxing by Musa, who repeatedly entered the compound to encourage him. "He died of grief", Musa said.
Zoo staff battled for the lives of exotic monkeys, birds, leopards, giraffe, zebra, aquatic animals, unable to provide the varied, specific diets they needed. Musa still dreamed of the breeding project he had to save rare breeds, which had been arranged with a South African counterpart just before the 1991 war. They would still do it, "when the embargo ends", he said. They would refurbish the zoo, restock. For all it's tribulations, the zoo was still a place of escape for the people, who flocked during leisure time, to wander through the royal palms and explain about the remaining wildlife to their children. Kids sold nuts and tiny metal cups of water by the paths.
On my last visit to the zoo I turned a corner to find possibly the happiest lynx on earth, sitting in a mock palace, with all the correct food, looking, I thought distinctly smug. Then I noticed the sign over the compound. He had been donated on the occasion of the zoo's anniversary, by Saddam Hussein's son Uday. "What happens if the lynx dies?"I asked the keeper escorting me round. He looked over his shoulder, then whispered: "Madam Felicity, we all run a very, very, long way."
I once became lost in the great park that houses the zoo and walked for over three hours. Dusk, then dark fell. At night it was not safe and trying to stay calm and think strategy, I was finally found by my longstanding driver, who ticked me off roundly for being so stupid. Like all of Iraq, it seems even less safe now.
One regime has been changed for another, even more incomprehensible, repressive and certainly more out of control than the last. And I wonder how Dr Musa, feels.
Felicity Arbuthnot has written and broadcast widely on Iraq and with Denis Halliday was senior researcher for John Pilger's Award winning documentary: 'Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq.'