"We've got a two-week supply of food en route," said a spokeswoman at Central Command in Qatar, the center of U.S. military operations. "They are Iraqis too -- we've definitely got to take care of them."
As the noose tightened around Baghdad and citizens ran rampant through the streets, cages were pried open and some animals were stolen -- possibly for food -- while hundreds more were released to fend for themselves in the war zone.
Those left behind, primarily lions and tigers that presented a clear and present danger, are wasting away from starvation. And there are private collections, kept by Saddam and his son Uday, that must be rounded up. Soldiers have done what they can, but zoo animals are low priority for a military force bent on rebuilding a nation.
At the older zoo, sited in the center of the city, the inhabitants that were looted or set free included monkeys, birds, bears, camels and domestic animals in addition to the big cats. Less is known about the situation at the second zoo, in the outskirts of the city, which was poised to reopen after an extensive renovation.
Closely monitoring the plight of Baghdad's zoo creatures is John Walsh, Boston-based international projects advisory director for WSPA, a United Nations affiliate that is the equivalent of the Red Cross for animals.
"I have heard from people in Kuwait that soldiers were feeding dead animals and sheep and goats at the zoo to the larger carnivores that are still alive," Walsh said. "It's a very bad situation. The animals there were in poor condition even before the war started."
Zoo animals are innocent victims of war, Walsh said. "Large cats and primates will hurt themselves, or even kill themselves, in response to the stress caused by noise and vibration."
Walsh, who helped rebuild and replenish zoos in Kuwait and Kabul, Afghanistan, following previous armed conflicts, knows what animal protection groups face in Iraq. Help is on the way, he promised, as soon as relief agencies get the nod to enter Baghdad.
David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo and former head of the London Zoo, also will be among those offering aid and comfort. Like Walsh, he helped rebuild the Kabul Zoo and his work has taken him throughout the Persian Gulf.
"This is a serious animal welfare issue. There is a huge emotional attachment to these animals, as demonstrated by the response from thousands of people to a similar situations at the zoo in Kabul," said Jones, who works with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in global animal relief missions.
He and Walsh are confident that the Society for Protection of Animals Worldwide (SPANA) will deliver its rapid response teams, comprising veterinarians and mobile clinics that are stationed in Jordan and Syria.
Jim Fikes, a public health adviser at the Humanitarian Operations Center in Kuwait City, said a shipment of animal food and a military civil affairs veterinary team was heading to Baghdad from Kuwait.
The food, according to the Central Command spokeswoman, includes two weeks worth of meat, fruit and vegetables plus a month's supply of dry food. The shipment was to leave Friday via contractor-supplied transport. Shipments generally arrive in no more than two-days she said though she could not say when the food would get to Baghdad.
The spokeswoman also said she had been had told medicine and veterinary supplies were being carried by a reporter on the way to Baghdad.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare has joined forces with WSPA to save the Baghdad animals, and has launched an emergency relief fund for that purpose. "But nothing can be done until permission to enter Baghdad is granted by the U.S. and British governments," said IFAW spokesperson Jennifer Ferguson-Mitchell.
Calls to U.S. Agency for International Development and Central Command revealed confusion on the nature and timing of such permission. Though Central Command initially referred the question to USAID, a spokesman for the aid agency said the military made such determinations. A second spokesman for Central Command said that the U.S. military was not denying anyone permission to enter but advising them on the risks.
"We've not stopped anyone from coming in," said a Central Command spokesman. "It's up to the aid organization to say 'Okay, we feel it's safe enough to come in.'"
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