Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Soldiers track down looted giraffe

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD

A US soldier pets a leopard on Monday at the Baghdad Zoo.

PHOTO: AFP

Somewhere in southern Baghdad, the US military suspects, there is a giraffe living in someone's house. The soldiers, along with zookeepers here, want to track down the giraffe quickly, for this is a nation where people are poor and hungry, though not absolutely starving.

"They've eaten one of the giraffes already," said Captain William Sumner, 31, whose Army unit is stationed at the Baghdad Zoo.

"We need to find the other one before it gets consumed," he said.

In many ways it seems a very good sign that conditions have improved enough here that the US military has time to worry about the fate of zoo animals. On Monday, American officials invited reporters to tour a refurbished zoo, reduced during the war to an expanse of nearly empty cages, as one small sign of progress.

The water came on Sunday -- good for the grass and for cleaning cages, as well as for the few animals that remain. The workers were paid US$20 each, something officials made sure was recorded on camera.

Soon, officials said, there will be actual animal food, so fewer donkeys will have to be hacked up.

In a small separate zoo, once the personal menagerie of Odai Hussein, the eldest son of former president Saddam Hussein, six lion cubs were born 10 days ago under the care of US Special Forces. At the zoo Monday, the mother, named Xena by the soldiers here, crouched protectively next to her snoozing litter, while the father, Brutus, shot an irritated spray of urine at reporters.

"No one knew that she was pregnant," said Stephan Bognar, an official with Wild Aid, a conservation group from San Francisco that is helping manage the animals here.

"One morning they came in. It was dark and they didn't know what was going on. They heard some sounds, and there in a corner were six cubs," he said.

Monday, the lions were a few hours away from mealtime, which amounts to an ad hoc rotation of beef and donkey.

"Today is donkey day," Bognar said, explaining that the donkeys were easily obtainable in local markets.

The US civil administration has been criticized for moving slowly in getting Iraq back to functioning even minimally. But Monday, Timothy Carney, a deputy to Jay Garner, the retired general who leads the civil administration here, called the work at the zoo "a metaphor for the kind of effort we are hoping to succeed in."

Working alongside American soldiers, nearly all of the 35 or so zoo employees are back, Monday with part of their salaries paid by the civil administration from Iraqi assets frozen in the US. The looting of animals has stopped. There might be no animals left at all if it weren't for the soldiers here, Carney said, who fed and cared for the animals even as they were dusting off from a battle inside the zoo itself.

Carney contended that there was much hope for the rest of Iraq's devastated official infrastructure "if we can get the zoo going in such a short time, with such small resources."

He was quick to add, however: "I don't want to get too cosmic. It's a modest metaphor."

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