Mosul’s forlorn little zoo, a collection of rusted cages in a park near the Tigris River, was abandoned by its keepers in October, as the Iraqi Army began to liberate the city from the Islamic State. For three months, the zoo was a staging ground for ISIS fighters. More than forty of the zoo animals died, either as collateral damage—trapped between warring combatants—or from starvation. By January, when the eastern half of Mosul was freed, only two animals had survived: Lula, a caramel-colored female bear, and Simba, a three-year-old lion.
Animals, like people, suffer from war psychoses, including P.T.S.D. During the most intense urban combat in history, Lula ate her two cubs from hunger and stress. Simba had been one of three lions. Simba’s father, weak and emaciated, was killed by his mate to provide food for herself and Simba. In the wild, lionesses hunt for the entire pride. She, too, soon succumbed.
Concerned about the fate of Lula and Simba, residents in Mosul sent frantic Facebook messages to Four Paws International, an animal-protection agency based in Austria, appealing for help. In mid-February, the organization dispatched Amir Khalil to Mosul. Khalil is an Egyptian veterinarian who has spent a quarter century saving animals in war zones on three continents. He found Lula deeply traumatized and starving; her snout protruded through her cage’s rusted bars, anxiously seeking food and water. Simba had grown so scrawny that his rib cage was exposed. He wouldn’t stop pacing in his small enclosure.
“Animals feel,” Khalil told me. “And they can’t understand what’s going on when they hear all these bombs and gunfire going off. They get irritated and nervous. They have better senses—they can hear better and smell better—than humans. In the wild, a bear can smell a human from fourteen kilometres away.”
Lula and Simba had lived for months in their own untended waste. The corpse of Simba’s mother lay on the ground in front of his cage. Mosul’s zoo was littered with carcasses in various states of decay.
“Lula and Simba were in very bad condition,” Khalil said. “We didn’t know if they would survive either if we tried to get them out. I had to improve their health first.” A car bomb went off close by as he anesthetized Simba to begin an examination. ISIS snipers were also positioned near the zoo, which is close to the dividing line between the liberated eastern half of the city and the last ISIS bastion in the west. Khalil medicated both animals, then hired four Iraqis to provide food and water until the beasts were stronger and he could return with a plan to get them out. It took two months, as the war raged on.
Khalil went back to Mosul in late March with international-travel certificates. He got Lula and Simba into large crates and moved them out of the city, only to be stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint and ordered to return them to the ravaged zoo. The Iraqis demanded more documents. His second attempt, in April, was again blocked, this time for nine days, with Lula and Simba stuck in their crates at the checkpoint—and no food available to feed them. One soldier handed two bullets to Khalil and suggested that he just shoot them.
The saga ended on April 10th, when he finally got clearance to fly Lula and Simba to Amman, Jordan. They were transferred to the New Hope Center, an animal-rehabilitation facility.
“Lula was great. The first thing she did was jump at an apple and swim in a little pond of water,” Khalil told me. “I think she wanted a shower after nine days in a crate! But Simba was more stressed. He was terrified.” A week later, Simba still wouldn’t leave an enclosure to explore the grassy fields of his temporary home. Once the two acclimate, the plan is to transfer them to Jordan’s Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve, which was founded in 2015 by Four Paws and the Princess Alia Foundation. It is the largest sanctuary for rescued and mistreated wildlife in the Middle East.
I visit zoos in war zones wherever possible; the few surviving inhabitants are often forgotten victims of conflicts. I tried to visit Lula and Simba when I was in Mosul in March, but the fighting near the zoo was too intense. The most pitiful war-zone zoo I’ve ever visited was in Kabul, in 1999. A family of elephants, along with more than three hundred exotic animals, had perished—some to gunfire, others stolen for cooking pots—during the chaotic four-year civil war and the five years of ruthless Taliban rule. It was painful watching Marjan, an aged lion that had been blinded by a grenade. Samboo, a black bear whose snout had been almost severed by a knife-wielding Taliban soldier, was confined to a small pen with a concrete floor. He had been virtually crippled by his own toenails. In a natural habitat, they would have worn down; instead, they had grown down the bottom of his feet.
Since 2003, wars and escalating unrest across the Middle East have killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions more to flee their homes. Thousands of animals, too, have been stranded—in Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli, Gaza, and Yemen. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Khalil was deployed to salvage the few survivors in Saddam Hussein’s zoo, which once held more than six hundred and fifty animals. The zoo sustained heavy damage during fighting between Iraq’s élite Republican Guard and the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division. Many animals died. Several escaped in a frenzy.
“Here we are in the middle of the city, everyone’s been talking about urban combat for three months, and the next thing you know there’s camels walking through our position, and monkeys in the trees, and at night you have a lion roaming free,” Major Rick Nussio told CNN at the time.
After the battle, the zoo was also looted. “Someone stole a giraffe,” Khalil told me. One of the zoo’s prize Bengal tigers—an endangered species—was later shot by an American solider after it injured a colleague who was toying with it during an unauthorized party on the zoo grounds. Just over two dozen of the Baghdad Zoo’s animals survived the war.
The world’s worst zoo, Khalil said, was in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip. Last August, he led an emergency team to close it down after only fifteen animals—out of hundreds—survived years of mistreatment, starvation, and the spillover of conflict. Khalil transported three lions from Gaza, through Israel, to the sanctuary in Jordan.
“It’s the first time anyone had an agreement between these three parties on anything,” Khalil said. “Nobody else gets in or out of Gaza. It proves animals can connect nations.”
Khalil’s next challenge is a zoo in Aleppo. After its success in Mosul, Four Paws received hundreds of e-mail appeals from Syrians to help their zoo. After six years of war, the only survivors at the last Aleppo zoo are two skeletal tigers, two bears, and a handful of monkeys.
“The owner is now a refugee, so there’s a lot to figure out,” Khalil told me. “To see if they’re healthy enough to move. Whether to try taking them out through Turkey or Lebanon. Where to take them. And, of course, how to pay for it.” Four Paws is a nonprofit with twelve offices around the world. Each mission costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Khalil feels that he has no choice. Zoo animals are trapped in our wars and conflicts. “We have no humanity,” he said, “if we abandon them to our guns and our hatreds.”