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This is a heartwarming, inspiring, and informative account. Sometimes depressing, maddening, and sad. It's also interesting and thought provoking. Set in Baghdad in 2003, this "true" story is told in first-person perspective by Lawrence Anthony, conservationist (with Graham Spence editing). Lawrence Anthony comes across as knowledgable but not arrogant. He seems a likable guy.
Anthony recounts the restoration of the bombed and looted Baghdad Zoo and its remaining animals, located in Al Zawra Park. Through his perspective, we see that this hard-won success was achieved through collaboration. Helpers included local Iraqis, a few Kuwaiti veterinarians, several South African conservationists (especially Lawrence Anthony), the military coalition (especially Captain Sumner), and reps from several international organizations like Care For The Wild, Wild Aide, and IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).
Kudos to all these heroes! And especially to those first few responders, working without pay (at first) to save the dehydrated and starved animals. In the intense heat, these Iraqi and Kuwaiti helpers — along with Lawrence himself — carried endless buckets of water from the canal to the cages. I wish I could buy them all a cold one!
As with the author's previous memoir, The Elephant Whisperer, this book was superbly narrated by Simon Vance. He's amazing. I loved Whisperer, and also enjoyed this book (but not quite as much). The author and editor take some topical digressions that could have been shortened. They also sporadically jump back in time when the author reflects on something.
It was sometimes hard to keep track of time, but I think Lawrence Anthony stayed in Baghdad working (without pay) for about four months. When he returned home to South Africa, the animals were recovering from months of dehydration, starvation, illness and injury, and reconstruction engineers had rebuilt the bombed and looted zoo, giving it back to the Iraqis and the City of Baghdad, along with Saddam Hussein's prized Arabians.
This kept my interest! At several points, my friend and I would stop the tape and discuss various decisions made by Lawrence Anthony, or by the military, or by other parties. We didn't always agree with their decisions, and sometimes they seemed unprepared, or reckless, or just plain under-equipped to take on these tasks (especially rescuing the abandoned lions, camels, and bears still locked up at Uday Hussein's palace menagerie). But those challenges made for good story.
Much as I cared about the plight of the long-suffering animals, I also cared about how the author portrayed life in post-war Baghdad, with looters and shooters, robbers and bombers, starvation-level poverty and intense fear...
Yet with the slightest hope for peace. Nothing idealized here. Anthony is pragmatic.
I learned a little about the politics behind the rebuilding of Baghdad. The rebels and loyalists. How the military dealt with members of the Ba'ath party. The local fear that Ba'athists would punish anyone who collaborated with Americans.
This narrative put those televised Shock and Awe accounts into a more meaningful context. I gained a personal perspective on the war and its aftermath, and on the horrible reign of Saddam Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay. Ugh.
Having followed this memoir, I now want to visit Al Zawra Park, home of the Baghdad Zoo. I want to see the animals I read about, like the dogs who protected the lion cubs during the war, and the terribly abused brown bears, old blind Saedia, Wounded Ass (healing nicely), and Last Man Standing.
I also want to read Captain William Sumner's account, Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and Heroes (written for older kids, with color photos).
26 of 27 people found this review helpful
Would you try another book from Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence and/or Simon Vance?
Yes I would consider another book by this author and reader. Lawrence Anthony did good work. He was an extraordinary man who followed his values despite the most difficult circumstances. He risked his own life repeatedly in order to do what was important to him. He made a positive difference in this world. Not many of us can say that.
What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
I had given little thought about how zoos in a war zone would be impacted. This was a great educational piece. The book overall was good, but slow in places. I often found myself a bit bored and tuning out. There was too much time spent describing logistical details and not enough spent on the personalities of the rescued and recovering animals. I could have done without donkeys (almost daily) being killed with axes for food. It served no purpose to the overall story, and left a lasting image in my mind.
Which scene was your favorite?
My favorite scene was when the ostriches, after living in extremely closed quarters in the zoo, experienced freedom for the first time (by escaping), and were racing down the war torn streets of Bagdad with Iraqi civilians (animal care takers) running behind them, holding on for dear life; as armed American soldiers stood beside tanks unable to believe their eyes, as the ostriches ran towards them.
Did Babylon's Ark inspire you to do anything?
It inspired me to pay closer attention, and to become more involved with local rescue organizations in my area.
Any additional comments?
I knew many Iraqi civilians were like people all over the world- trying to enjoy their lives, earn a living, raise their children, and so forth. I did not fully realize the impact war had on their lives. Of course I knew it had to be bad, but I gave it little thought I am ashamed to say. I had no idea how bad it must have been for them... Like the animals in the zoo, they were collateral damage.
16 of 17 people found this review helpful