Every war has its collateral damage. Some end up on the front pages of newspapers or on glaring television screens. A misguided missile, a civilian massacre, a building lying in ruin. But there are also the hidden tragedies: the stories buried in the rubble or trapped inside the cages of a quiet zoo, metres from where the bombs rained down. This is the story of the Tripoli Zoo, and the South African-based veterinarian who travelled to a war zone to help hundreds of animals caught in the crossfire. EWN reporter ALEX ELISEEV went with him.
Inside Muammar Gaddafi’s destroyed compound in Tripoli, a “Berlin Wall” moment is playing out in a blur of bright flags, smiling children and walls covered in the graffiti of victory. The fall of the mighty Bab Al-Azizia fortress, where Gaddafi hid until the bitter end, signalled the ousting of a tyrant who’d ruled Libya for four decades.
Now, streams of people walk through the forbidden rooms or throw up peace signs every time a camera clicks. Just like Germans climbed up onto the wall in Berlin, Libyans now stroll through the colourful rubble to capture their small slice of history.
Across the road, a zoo sleeps. It’s a 45-hectre park where Gaddafi’s sons kept many exotic pets, including lions and tigers. At the height of the fighting, over 80 zookeepers abandoned the complex, leaving animals locked in their small overnight cages. For around ten days, the zoo was empty of people. For those inside, there was no food, no water and no escape. All they could do was wait for the hurricane of war to blow over them.
A month later, bullets are still scattered around the enclosures. The roof of the hippo den has been blown open by a grenade. Some of the glass windows are shattered. But worst of all, the animals are deeply traumatised. And only a handful of keepers have returned.
As the animals become more difficult to care for – the hippos have grown aggressive and are fighting with each other; the hyenas are pacing in tight, manic circles; the chimps are banging on their cages. The workers are battling with food supplies; they haven’t been paid in months and don’t necessarily know how to look after the 700 animals that remain.
For years, the zoo existed in isolation from the rest of the world and for the past two, it had been undergoing major renovations, which ground to a halt because of the war. It’s a desperate situation. No one is saying how many animals died. There have been electricity cuts, ruining food supplies and playing havoc with air-conditioning inside enclosures. At the main office, there’s no paper to make a single photocopy.
The team from Four Paws, led by experienced vet Amir Khalil, were the first to arrive at Tripoli zoo. They came with medical supplies, funds to secure a few months worth of food and, importantly, skills to share. They drove hundreds of kilometres from Tunisia, passed through a choked-up border and slipped through some 30 rebel checkpoints on their way to Tripoli. While the capital city is celebrating, the war continues in at least three nearby cities and Gaddafi and his sons are still in hiding. Gunshots ring out day and night. It’s a strange moment for Libya, somewhere towards the end of the book, but not quite at the final chapter.
Khalil has worked with Four Paws for almost 20 years. He has rescued dancing gypsy bears in Bulgaria, horses in Egypt, elephants in Zimbabwe and big cats in Africa. He has lived a nomadic life, undoing the damage that humans inflict on animals.
This is the second mission he’s leading into Libya in under a month. During the first, he was forced to put down a beautiful Siberian tiger called Osama. This journey has been equally difficult: one of his vets has been held up in Tunisia with car problems, a much-needed tranquilizer gun he brought from Austria didn’t pass through customs and he has only a day and a half to work in Tripoli.
His aim is not to treat individual animals – although he does help with some medical procedures – but to set the zoo on a path towards stability. Many of its supply veins have been severed and his job is to stitch them up.
He gives the zoo director a guide on enriching the lives of many of the animals and organises for keepers to attend conferences. He calls the zoo a “theatre of war” and works like a chain-smoking director to make sure all the actors play their part. It’s a logistical masterpiece and Khalil leaves feeling he’s made a difference.
He’s already talking about the possibility of a third mission. He knows the work is far from over. But he feels that if the renovations can start soon and some form of stability returns to the zoo, it can begin to heal. Khalil believes the animals need time and healthy routines to recover.
At the end, I ask him whether going into war zones to save animals is not the work of a madman. He answers: “The animals cannot escape. They can not run like the humans. They don’t have the voice to shout ‘we need help’… We are able to hear those animals and to support them. And if we are able to respect these animals, maybe we will be able to respect ourselves as humans.” DM
Photos: ALEX ELISEEV