Tigers Return to Baghdad

Dr. Adel Salman Mousa, director of the Baghdad Zoo, was far too polite to go into the details of why it is that his zoo needed the gift of two tigers that had just arrived from the United States. Asked what happened to the zoo's previous tigers, he just says, "That was a very sad incident, but we're starting a new day and we don't want to think about that." The tigers were presented to the press and public on a searing hot morning, and they ignored all the cameras to frolic in their wading pool. "The U.S. military worked for more than a year to bring these animals to the zoo," Mousa says, "and get the zoo back to bring a smile back to the kids and the public after years of degradation and misery."

That degradation is well known—the zoo was looted, animals were stolen for food and profit, others were left to starve in their cages during the initial invasion in April 2003. Then in December 2003, a group of American soldiers were having a barbecue at the zoo when one of them went between the outer and inner cages of the tiger enclosure, and the Bengal tiger inside grabbed him through the bars, pulled him close and ripped his arm to pieces. Another American soldier shot the tiger. It died of internal bleeding. When the Army investigated, it discovered that the injured soldier had been drinking beer—against Army regulations—and that the soldier who killed the tiger had used an illegal sidearm, which he'd confiscated from an Iraqi. The resulting headlines were predictable: DRUNKEN SOLDIERS KILL BAGHDAD'S LAST TIGER, and became yet more proof for those who didn't need it of American irresponsibility in Iraq.

Understandably, then, after the Mebane, N.C.-based Conservators' Center, an exotic-wildlife sanctuary, offered to donate two tigers to the Baghdad Zoo, the American Embassy and the U.S. military went to great efforts to make it happen. Lt. Col. Robert Sindler, an Army veterinarian, organized a $125,000 grant to get the tigers here. One roadblock after another emerged. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was dubious and had to give export permission. Actress and animal activist Kim Basinger objected to sending the tigers to a war zone. Transporting them on military aircraft presented special problems, and by last month Sindler was despairing of arranging it in time, even after he agreed to extend his own tour by a month to work on it. Finally, he met with Ambassador Ryan Crocker at the embassy's July 4 barbecue, and Crocker agreed that the embassy would pony up the $66,000 it would cost to simply have the animals sent in by DHL. Crocker took a personal interest in the case, helping to cut through all the red tape. Finally the tigers arrived by air and were brought in from Baghdad International Airport in a military convoy Aug. 4.

Today the two tiger cubs looked happy enough, actively splashing around in the shade of palm trees, and playing with balls. Both juveniles, between a year and a half and two years old and already 150 pounds each, they're a male, Riley, and a female, Hope. Because they're mongrels, mixed subspecies rather than a pure single subspecies of tiger, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wouldn't allow their export unless the zoo agreed not to let them mate. For the moment, that's academic, since they haven't reached puberty; later they'll have to be separated.

The Baghdad Zoo, in Zawra Park in the middle of the city, has now returned to something approaching normality; there hasn't been a suicide bombing at the funfair there since last year, and the expansive grounds are clean and tidy. A steady stream of families began arriving this morning-after being searched for explosives or weapons—and made their way to the tigers' new home. Animals at the zoo are still relatively few—788 in all, mostly birds—and big species like elephants and giraffes are missing entirely. The zoo's original 22 lions had all been stolen or killed in the early post-invasion days, but there are still two lionesses, who came from Saddam Hussein's son Uday's own palace menagerie.

There's a footnote to the tale of the tigers. Sgt. Keith Mitchell of Charlotte, N.C., the soldier who was mauled, was initially busted in rank as a punishment for drinking, but later earned his stripes back. The Army's investigations exonerated him of charges that he had been trying to feed chicken kebabs to the tiger and said there was no evidence he was actually drunk—though he admitted to consuming a small amount of beer. And the other soldiers present were tested for alcohol in the blood the next day, and had none. Mitchell was eventually given an honorable medical discharge in 2006, but after two dozen operations in a vain effort to restore use of his arm, his health deteriorated badly. He suffered from heart problems and diabetes—possibly as a result of all the surgery. He died from complications of diabetes one year ago, on Aug. 14, 2007, leaving a wife, Angelique, and a 2-year-old daughter, Mary. Sergeant Mitchell was only 36, the Baghdad Zoo's latest, and hopefully last, victim.

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