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Tigers make a fresh start in Baghdad

August 09, 2008|Caesar Ahmed and Tina Susman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Tigers have not fared well in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, they languished in zoo cages, hungry and haggard. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they survived on scraps provided by sympathetic zookeepers. And after Hussein's ouster in 2003, one of the two tigers in the Baghdad Zoo was shot and killed by a U.S. soldier.

With the arrival of two Bengal tigers from a North Carolina sanctuary for endangered animals, Iraqi and U.S. officials are hoping the future is brighter for tigers here.

Technically cubs because they are younger than 2, the tigers -- Hope and Riley -- nonetheless weigh about 150 pounds each and showed fearsome sets of teeth as they played with rubber toys and splashed in a pool during their unveiling Friday at the Baghdad Zoo.

The tigers are the latest addition to the facility, which fell into disrepair after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when zoo workers fled and looters rampaged through the grounds. When the looting ended, only a few of the hundreds of animals remained; the others had been killed or stolen.

The survivors included two Bengal tigers. But a few months later, a U.S. soldier shot the younger of the cats, an 11-year-old, after it mauled the hand and arm of a comrade. Zoo officials said at the time that the soldiers had been drinking and that the mauled man had put his arm into the cage to feed the tiger. U.S. officials said tests determined that the soldier was not drunk, though he had consumed beer in violation of Army regulations.

The second tiger died in 2005 of old age at 20, leaving the zoo tigerless.

In a country where untold thousands of people have died since the current war began, a tiger's violent death might not be expected to cause much consternation. Not so. A zoo veterinarian, Haidar Malik, said Friday that he was quite certain the donation of the tigers was a U.S. move to make up for the 2003 shooting.

"I don't think it was a coincidence. They are trying to compensate for the one killed back then out of goodwill," he said. "It's a very good initiative by their side, and they are helping a lot."

U.S. officials said the tigers' arrival had nothing to do with the 2003 incident.

The U.S. Embassy paid $66,000 to transport the tigers from North Carolina, but press attache James B. Fennell noted that the private Conservators' Center in Mebane, N.C., donated the cats. "It's really a private transaction between the zoo and the donor organization," he said.

Since the zoo reopened in July 2003, four months after the invasion, American forces have been involved in a major effort to refurbish the facility in central Baghdad's Zawra Park.

"This day is a historical day for the Baghdad Zoo," said director Adil Salman Mousa. "We are really happy today. We want to bring smiles back to the kids and the public, who faced years of deprivation."

Mousa said zoo attendance has soared as Baghdad's security situation has improved. In 2006, visitation never topped more than 120 people a day. Now at least 2,000 to 3,000 visit each weekday, and weekends bring tens of thousands of visitors, Mousa said. The zoo has 62 species and a total of 788 animals, he said.

This being Iraq, the tigers' arrival took place under special security. A military convoy transported the animals by road from the airport to the zoo on Thursday. Iraqis who lined up in the morning to see the animals were frisked, their handbags searched.

At least one animal rights group opposed the donation, saying Baghdad remains too unstable to provide a safe home for endangered species.

"These tigers will be caged, helpless and completely dependent on humans to survive in an area where many people live in fear and are still without access to basic necessities," the Associated Press quoted Lisa Wathne of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as saying.

Her concerns did not appear to affect Hope and Riley, who frolicked in their pool, nor visitors such as Ali Mohammed, who was visiting with his wife and two sons.

"It's lovely today that my children are seeing these tigers," Mohammed said. "I will come and see them again another time, and I hope they will be in the same good shape they are in now."

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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