Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Why Animals Matter


Fancy another inspirational South African story? Because I’ve got one!

Apart from Google, I gather most of my news from BBC Radio 4, so I know a lot about breast cancer recovery rates in the UK, how bad the pay gap is in Britain and ways to cook pumpkin risotto. However, one lucky morning by sheer chance I caught an interview with Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist and mad South African who took it upon himself in the early days of the Iraq invasion to go to Baghdad to rescue the remaining animals in the Baghdad Zoo. I was amazed and astonished by his story, and then last week, a friend lent me his book, which tells this very tale.

Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called Thula Thula in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa that I call home. KZN is a land of immense privilege and immense poverty. Game reserves attract vital tourist dollars that support not only conservation and these precious oases of savannah, but also local communities who find jobs as game rangers and reserve staff. If you ever have the chance to go on safari, snap it up; it’s an unbelievable opportunity to experience beautiful animals in their natural surroundings.

Lawrence Anthony was watching the fall of Baghdad on TV from the relative comfort of Thula Thula in April 2003 when he realised that he, of all people on earth, was going to do what he could to rescue the animals of Baghdad. He says:

Standing out there on that magnificent African starlit night, watching my elephants contentedly showing off their progeny, I decided for once I was not going to be a bystander. Enough was enough. It was time for me to make a stand, even if I failed.

He got himself a visa, some money, said goodbye to his family and within days found himself waiting on the Iraq/Kuwaiti border with two brave compatriots from the Kuwait Zoo. They were the first civilians to enter Iraq after the invasion. They found their way to Bagdad, miraculously unscathed, and found both the city and the zoo to be a scene of apocalypse. I won’t repeat the details of what he found at the zoo, but accept that it was horrifying: 80% of the animals were dead or looted, and only the carnivores were left. These were nearly dead of starvation and dehydration.

Anthony’s book tells of how during the next few weeks he managed to scrabble an existence for these creatures: all the pipes had been looted, so he carried water to the cages in tin cans, and when he was finally given a bucket, it was stolen. He fed them with food brought from Kuwait. The zoo staff, hearing that someone was feeding and watering the animals, trickled back, and with their support he started cleaning up the cages, scaring off looters and slowly creating order from the chaos. He paid the staff, so that they had enough food to feed themselves and their families, and so that they had the energy to come to work and haul water for the animals. The staff then sourced donkeys as food for the animals.

When Anthony was sure that the animals of the Baghdad Zoo were going to live, he then turned his attention to Saddam Hussein’s many private zoos and menageries. The book details how he and his team rescued lions, bears and even ostriches from unspeakable conditions in other places in the city. One particularly vivid image has three ostriches running through an army barricade, closely followed by a troop carrier with an ostrich’s neck and head sticking out of the top.

What is stunning about this story is Anthony’s deep-seated conviction that the animals mattered. When his colleagues from Kuwait decide to head home, understandably unsettled by the precarious nature of life in Baghdad, Anthony decides to stay. He watches his life-line, in the form of his Kuwaiti rental car, drive away and realises that whatever it takes he will make a stand on behalf of the animals:

I considered again my reasons for coming here. For me, this was more than just about saving a zoo. It was about making a moral and ethical stand, about saying we cannot do this to our planet anymore. This realization had a profound impact on me, and I decided that an example had to be set. A responsible, influential stand had to made against mankind’s irreverence for other life-forms. I decided then and there than Baghdad was to be the place it started.

The rest of the book tells of more animal rescues, Anthony’s efforts to get the zoo onto the radar of the US administration in order to receive much-needed funds, and well-intentioned – but insulting to the Iraqis – attempts by international NGOs to relocate some of the Zoo animals to the wilds. While not a political book, it inevitably becomes of and about politics as Anthony negotiates the fragile space between Americans and Iraqis. He was still an outsider after all.

The book is jointly written by Anthony and journalist Graham Spence. It’s a well-written, gripping story that happens also to be true. It gave me a different viewpoint into the invasion and the war, and all the wonderful people who are doing their best inside their city and their country to survive day-to-day.

Lawrence Anthony received the prestigious Earth Day Award at the United Nations in March 2004 for his rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. In September 2004, he was invited to become the first South African member of the Explorers Club of New York. Lawrence Anthony is the founder of the international Earth Organisation dedicated to environmental issues.

Because none survive alone.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

11 thoughts on “Why Animals Matter

  1. I also heard Anthony’s interview on the BBC. What he did and what he does is so interesting. The one truly bizarre aspect of the interview was how the person holding the interview (was it Simon Mayo?) and the listeners calling in throughout the interview were appalled by the fact that Anthony had fed the zoo animals donkeys and other animals to keep the zoo animals alive. Over and over, the listeners expressed their horror at the fact that Anthony sacrificed life to keep the animals alive. What misplaced criticism. He was trying to keep animals alive who were rare or even threatened by extinction. Do you remember that part of the interview?

  2. Sounds riveting, as was yesterday’s post. South Africa seems to be the land of contradictions living side by side. One of my biggest regrets is not visiting South Africa when I had the chance to many years ago. Maybe…someday.

  3. @Alida – it’s never too late to visit South Africa! A fabulous land. Go now!
    Thanks Charlotte for bringing back great memories of our early-morning game drives, walks, night drives…

  4. I also heard that programme, my DH and I were killing ourselves laughing over the mental picture of the humvee with the ostriches heads poking out of the top. This may seem a biased remark, but what Laurence Anthony did was such a South African thing to do. No faffing around, a can-do approach, and diving straight in

  5. That’s such an interesting choice, to go to a place where all living things are in such a dire situation, and to look after the animals. In a circumstance where so many voices and sides of the issue are clamoring to be heard, I’m glad someone went and looked out for the animals, who couldn’t speak for themselves at all.

  6. That story really moved me. So much devastation, that the efforts of one seem futile. Until the one makes the effort. And something gets better.

  7. I would like to commend you for writing such a beautiful synopsis of Lawrence’s amazing act of courage. I have the great honor of working with Lawrence in his environmental organization and so admire his vision and purpose to raise mankind’s awareness of his vitally symbiotic relationship with the Plant and Animal Kingdoms. We have a unique environmental and conservation organization whose only agenda is to find the actual truth of environmental situations and then to locate and introduce real and effective solutions to those problems; solutions which don’t themselves end up becoming bigger problems that have to be solved later.
    I invite your readers and friends to become members in The Earth Organization (TEO) by going to our website, ( finding out more about us, and joining with us in this effort.
    I also highly recommend going to Lawrence’s game reserve in South Africa – Thula Thula. It is an extraordinary experience. He has a phenomenal relationship with a herd of totally wild elephants there. If anyone else should get too close to them, the elephants would, of course, kill them. But when Lawrence goes out into the bush, he calls them and they run to him and eat out of his hands. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life, to see the joy they expressed when they realized that it was Lawrence coming to see them.

    Again, thanks so much for reviewing his wonderful book.

    Barbara Wiseman
    International President
    The Earth Organization

  8. Wow what a guy. I hope one I stand up and do something rather than just think about it and make a difference.

  9. You’re on a roll at the moment, Charlotte! Yet another book to add to my when-I-finish-my-MSc book mountain.

  10. This book is definitely going on my ever-growing reading pile. What an incredible and selfless thing to do! Sounds like a case of “‘n boer maak ‘n plan” in the best sense of that phrase 🙂

  11. Btw, fab that you’re also doing NaBloPoMo! I have a partner in crime – woo hoo!

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