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animal cruelty? mosul zoo’s neglected beasts and their devoted keeper

Abdul-Muhaymen Basel
The animals are neglected, the place reeks and neighbours want the second oldest zoo in Iraq closed down. But the zookeeper insists on his dedication to his bestial charges; he has even founded an animal welfare society.
15.03.2012  |  Mosul

One can barely see down the road which leads to the second oldest zoo in Iraq. It’s lined with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of motorcycles all waiting outside of repair shops along the road. The door to the zoo is dirty and smeared with oil but a large sign on it, decorated with cartoons of animals, enthusiastically proclaims: “Welcome to Ninawa Zoo!”

Any enthusiasm is soon dispersed though. Ninawa’s zoo is located in an old, derelict stone building. Inside the place looks like a cave – rusting metal cages are spread throughout and a horrible smell indicates a lack of maintenance or care. The sorry conditions the animals are in only adds to the unpleasantness of the place.

This place is the only zoo in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, capital of the province of Ninawa and home to around two million people. Entrance costs IQD500 (around US$0.40) but despite the cheap price of entry, locals prefer not to bring their children here to see the animals. Some of them avoid even coming near the building; they believe it’s a health hazard that could cause disease.

The first animal one sees upon entering the zoo is Salem, a monkey. Salem moves very slowly and one gets the feeling he’s sick, just from his progress across the cage. Look at his food dish, filled with sheep offal, and this seems even more likely.

As you move further into the zoo, surrounded by dirty, sick animals and rotten food, you start to wish you could turn off at least two or three of your five senses. Questions come into your mind: What kind of life can exist here? Who comes here?

Still, Dirgham Sharif al-Hamid al-Quraishi says he is proud to be the owner of this manky zoo. “I travelled all over the Iraq to bring animals to this zoo that people would like to see,” says the man, whose father also had animal husbandry as a profession. “And I also imported animals from outside Iraq.”

I ask about Salem the monkey and how he came to Iraq and al-Quraishi just smiles. “These are the secrets of my profession, I can’t reveal them,” he answers.

The zoo also houses a variety of other animals, including a peacock, pigeons, falcons, dogs, a heron, a crow, lizards, bulbul birds and a chicken. There are none of the lions, elephants, giraffes or bears depicted on the sign on the front entrance.

Al-Quraishi explains that the creatures he has here are the only ones he is able to keep in his zoo. He was forced to take the larger animals to a safer environment. But when I press him on this, he tells me he gave away a number of dead animals to a natural history museum so that they could be stuffed and displayed “for the benefit of the Iraqi people”.

As I neared another cage, the animals within became frightened and suddenly there was a cacophony of animal noises. I ask al-Quraishi about the rotten food.

Al-Quraishi says he does his best, buying different types of food that the different types of animals require, from the local market.

In another part of the zoo, a hyena was lying on top of some rotten lemons. “Usually local vets provide care for the animals as needed,” al-Quraishi said as we passed the hapless creature. “In some cases I provide veterinary services, based on my experience in animal husbandry.”

In general it seems that the zoo is not a welcome institution in Ninawa. “The zoo is not supervised by the Department of Agriculture,” Muhanna al-Taq, the head of the department, pointed out.

Other local officials noted that al-Quraishi’s so-called zoo is an unlicensed project and that al-Quraishi has no permits to keep his animals where he does. A source in Mosul’s Department of Health, who preferred not to be named, explained that local bylaws prohibit the breeding of pets and predators in residential areas. “But the difficult security conditions in Mosul over the past few years have prevented us from taking any measures against the owner of the zoo,” the official said. He was referring to the fact that Mosul, with its complicated mix of ethnicities and religious sects, had seen its fair share of sectarian violence during Iraq’s most troubled years, and remained a relatively conservative and dangerous city today.

In fact, he added, he had been surprised when the local authorities began threatening shepherds whose flocks roam the city streets with a fine of IQD1 million (around US$850) – yet they did nothing about an unlicensed, unsanitary zoo in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.

The zoo’s neighbours have submitted a number of complaints to local authorities, about the smells and the risk of disease and asking that the animals be relocated and the zoo shut down. However, as one of the neighbours said, the authorities have not responded.

The inability of local authorities to do anything about the zoo was repeated by several other officials. The Ministry of the Environment said they were powerless – there were no restrictions on al-Quraishi as long as the animals were kept inside the buildings. And another official, this time from the Department of Municipality said that because the zoo was on private land, their role was limited to the removal of unlicensed signage.

Meanwhile al-Quraishi is intent on carrying on. He does admit that the current location probably isn’t the best one for a zoo. In fact, he says, he had asked the local government to help him find a better place somewhere in the surrounding countryside. “But in the end I just felt desperate – there was so much bureaucracy,” al-Quraishi explains. “I know this isn’t the right place but for two decades people have been coming here and enjoying their time with the animals.”

In fact, al-Quraishi doesn’t think what he’s doing is cruel to his animals. Playing with Salem the monkey, he tells me that he has started an Iraqi animal welfare society. He explains that he believes that a society like this is very important as it may well prevent the extinction of a number of animals. He added that he was trying to contact other zoos outside of Iraq to see whether they might be able to offer support to his zoo; he also wanted to contact international animal welfare organisations and added that the Iraqi government was not interested at all in what he was doing.

As I was leaving the zoo, going past a huge snakeskin that is on display next to the exit, al-Quraishi began to tell me about a campaign conducted by Ninawa’s Department of Health to destroy dogs that were roaming the city. He thought that around 750 dogs had been killed already and he was concerned about what effect the poison they were using on the dogs, might have on other local animals, including pets.

As he spoke, al-Quraishi became more upset and angry. He insisted that he and his animal welfare society wouldn’t spare any effort to raise awareness about the stray dogs and about the importance of caring for them rather than killing them. As I made my way down the road though, his voice faded away, hidden by the roar of the motorcycles being repaired and tested by mechanics all along the road.

So I didn’t hear this beleaguered zoo keepers’ last words to me. But I did see him put his hand on his chest, a gesture that explained to me that the animals he cares about are being taken care of - and that the ones that are gone would live on in his heart.

This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Adel Kamal.

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