Literary summary critique for, “Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo,” by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

By Jeff Kidd

Babylon’s Ark is the incredible true story of South African Conservationist Lawrence Anthony’s work to save the Baghdad Zoo, and the animals who lived there during the Iraq War. Anthony outlines his adventures and efforts in several phases in the book.

The first phase takes place on the Kuwaiti-Iraq border. Lawrence Anthony entered Iraq with two Kuwaiti Zoologists (Husham and Abdullah Latif) who were both from the Kuwaiti Zoo. The journey from the Kuwaiti border to the Baghdad Zoo was a ten hour trip (in their Toyota rental car) without a military escort or defensive weapons. Mr. Anthony and his Kuwaiti counterparts took precautions to avoid any elements of Saddam’s army, and the fedayees gangs who were fanatically loyal to the overthrown dictator. To get to the Baghdad Zoo they first had to enter the Al Zawra Park which is located in the center of the war torn city. Even after the Iraqi War had officially ended, fire-fights were raging against the Ba’athist terrorists who were loyal to Saddam Hussein.

The first military officer who provided an escort to the Baghdad Zoo was 1st Lieutenant Szydlik. Upon Lawrence’s arrival he discovered that the zoo had been badly damaged during the war. Most of the damage to the zoo was caused by looters. The looters stole vital zoo equipment. In addition, they also killed any of the zoo animals that they thought were edible. Lieutenant Szydlik introduced Mr. Anthony to Husham Hussan who was the Deputy Director of the Baghdad Zoo. Initially the zoo was in horrendous conditions. The cages were damaged, and had not been cleaned for months. Furthermore, the animals were severely dehydrated, and dying of hunger. To make matters worse, the animals were also suffering from the traumatic effects of the bombing war. The biggest problem the animal’s had was getting water. The looters had stolen parts of the zoo’s generator. The generator was essential to operating the water pumps; therefore the zoo staff had to manually carry water buckets from the canal which was located adjacent to the zoo. Lawrence Anthony may have been depressed, and discouraged at times but he remained steadfast by never losing hope of  rescuing the Baghdad Zoo.

In his own words,” Here in Iraq, we would make a stand that would send a message to fellow human beings: that you don’t do this to other creatures. For the most part the zoo’s animals were killed by looters and soldiers. The zoo staff reiterated that they needed their jobs; their families were as hungry as the animals.”

Lawrence got the Iraqi zoo staff to focus on the following elements: food, water, care, nurture. He also instilled the following strategy to save the zoo: (1) feed the staff, (2) attain buckets to hand-carry water from the canal, and (3) fix the pumps as soon as possible. The first hurdle in this three part plan was the pumps. Husham informed Mr. Anthony that he needed batteries, and a dynamo for his generator to make the pumps operational. Next,Lawrence tackled the issue of  feeding the zoo animals. He ordered the zoo staff to buy or barter for donkeys. Once the donkeys were acquired  , they were slaughtered and utilized as food for the zoo animals.

Before the United States invasion of Iraq most Iraqi’s were on government subsidized food aid. Saddam used his food aid policy to make the people dependent on him. Looting resulted after the war errupted; this in turn caused the collapse of law and order. Through (U.S. Army) Captain William Sumner of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, the Bagdad Zoo had attained an accredited representative in the bureaucracy. A man with sergeant stripes loaned Lawrence two spare batteries for use in the water pump at the zoo. During one of Husham’s trips downtown he discovered, and purchased a dynamo for the generator. The pumps were now operational, and spraying water everywhere.

To obtain a professional position during the reign of Saddam Hussein a person had to be a member of the Ba’athist Party. Husham was arrested , and relieved of his duties due to his past affiliation with the Ba’athist Party. Lawrence Anthony continued to fight to restore the zoo. Anthony’s ultimate triumph occurred when Captain Sumner got the coalition forces to act on his proposal to restore the zoo with a tentative budget of  $250,000.

In addition to the zoo animals, Anthony worked to rescue the Hussein family’s collection of exotic animals. Dr. Barbra Mass, the chief executive of Care for the Wild International-(CWI) stirred up a controversy by announcing to the media that she planned on relocating the Hussein family lions to South Africa. Her unilateral decision angered the Iraqi government. The lions, and the zoo animals were eventually prohibited from leaving. The animals were after all the property of the Iraqi people.

In conclusion, Lawrence Anthony was successful at saving the Baghdad Zoo, since he was able to motivate, and lead the zoo staff in sustaining, and improving the animal’s health. In a nutshell, Lawrence Anthony was successful in his mission due to his perseverance, and his ability to: (1) Improvise, (2) Overcome, (3) Adapt at All Costs!

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This post also appears on Allied Cultures Against Discrimination here.