This is a war story with an uplifting ending; a story of success and hope in the face of all adversity. And I mean ALL adversity. Lawrence Anthony went into the middle of the war in Baghdad at a time when people, other than the US army, were fleeing. He want to save the animals at the Baghdad Zoo that had been left to die, casualties of war, neglected and ignored.
I know Lawrence Anthony annoys some people. He irritates authority with his insistent nagging; some readers find him egotistical; others find him sentimental, that he anthropomorphises animals. I like him and his writing (or Graham Spence’s writing) and I find his passion for animals admirable. This is a man who sat at the bottom of Africa, in the peaceful bush, and worried about the animals in the Baghdad Zoo. He knew nothing about the Iraqi War; all he knew was that the animals in the Kabul Zoo had been left to die awful, inhumane deaths by the Taliban, and that similar would happen in Baghdad. So he decided to stop being a bystander and to make a stand against man’s abuse against the animals kingdom.
Instead of being theoretical observer, however, he funded himself to go to the Baghdad Zoo literally to save the helpless, caged animals. Once there, he says he had ‘never seen animals in such dreadful condition’. The zoo had been bombed and various cages had been patched together by American soldiers who had it in their hearts to stop the animals from escaping. Not one could have escaped though. Each animal was on the verge of dying; listless. The cages were thick with piles of excrement; swarms of flies hovered like black clouds over the carcasses of dead animals that had been throws to the meat-eaters. Some of them just lay in the filth, others paced backwards and forwards, demented.
It is heart-breaking, nauseating, to read about the horrendous condition that animals were in, the disgusting filth they were surviving in. For animal lovers, it will be very difficult to read about this mistreatment of animals, but please keep reading – this is a story of the true dedication that shows how a handful of people can make such a difference. It showed me that one person can make a difference, just by acting on his beliefs.
There were others who shared this belief and Iraqis worked side by side with Americans to help save these animals. The differences of war were forgotten as American soldiers donated their food packs to the workers helping at the Zoo; mysterious donors dropped off water pumps and generators, others offered free accommodation.
One of Lawrence Anthony’s skills is in creating allies and using them to his advantage, in the nicest possible way. He meets South African journalists who allow him to stay in what sounds to me like the worst hotel on earth, the Al-Rashid; he also encounters South Africans who work as private security guards and help protect him and the Iraqis who work at the Zoo. He often uses his nationality to save him when faced with angry Iraqis, by saying “Nelson Mandela” to prove he is not an American.
I was able to feel the tension of the war while reading this book; the hostilities between Americans and Iraqis, the hatred and suspicions that are caused by war. It was an eye-opener to read about the conditions that people lived under during that war and how life manages to carry on regardless of the situation.
I found “Babylon’s Ark” to be a profoundly moving book and, like The Elephant Whisperer, I couldn’t put it down. It is written in such an accessible, almost chatty, style that it makes for compulsive reading. It is fascinating to find out how Lawrence Anthony, with the help of others, recreates the Zoo nearly to its former glory, and brings the animals back to a healthy condition with comfortable surroundings.
There is a philosophical ending to the book, where Lawrence Anthony debates the detrimental effects man is having on earth and how we are ruining our planet. He writes about a new conservation society he has set up, called The Earth Organisation and what it will focus on.
I have to confess in a very guilty fashion that I skim-read the last part. I was more interesting in the story of the Zoo than the ethical argument he puts forward. I feel about that because he has shown us in this book that one man can make a difference.
Maybe I’ll get back to that as a separate piece of reading and tackle it without the story of the rescue of the Zoo so fresh in my mind.