Father of Lions: Saving Starving Animals at the Mosul Zoo
by Louise Callaghan
383 pages, 2020.
Forge Book, c/o Tom Doherty Associates; available in multiple print & electronic formats c/o Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and Kindle at prices from $12.99 up.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
“Good afternoon. I am writing because I want to help animals in the Mosul Zoo of Iraq,” Colombian animal advocate Orlando Guzman emailed to ANIMALS 24-7 on February 11, 2017, even as the Iraq army fought in the Mosul streets to free the city from the Daesh militia, also known as ISIS.
“The conditions are terrible for the animals,” Guzman relayed from social media postings by besieged Mosul residents, who risked their lives to get word to the outside world through fragile and forbidden satellite cell phone connections.
“Please, they need our help”
“Please, they need our help,” Guzman emphasized. “You can see the news in the internet. It is necessary to organize a campaign to solve this terrible situation and to help the animals.”
Guzman, and many others, had already contacted the Austrian animal rescue organization Vier Pfoten, whose senior veterinarian, Egyptian citizen Amir Khalil, had already become legendary for other zoo rescues in Middle Eastern and African combat zones.
All ANIMALS 24-7 could do, unfortunately, was to reassure Guzman that Vier Pfoten and Khalil would almost certainly help in Mosul, too, when the shooting stopped.
Louise Callaghan, Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, was at the time “covering the battle to liberate the city from Isis,” she later told interviewer Marc Bekoff, better known as an evolutionary biologist, author of many books himself, and as a Psychology Today online columnist.
“Every day,” Callaghan recalled, “we’d meet civilians who had been displaced from their homes, and those who had been injured in the fighting. It was quite unremittingly grim. But one day we heard that there was a zoo that had survived the battle. We got there not long after Isis had been pushed from the area, and I bumped into Abu Laith, the zookeeper, and Hakam, another local who helped the animals. That’s where the book Father of Lions began.
Upstaged by COVID
“I spent weeks in Mosul over about a year and a half,” Callaghan said, “talking over everything in minute detail with the main characters and visiting all the places they had been. I was lucky that I had spent so much time in the city during the battle, so I already had lots of material that I could use.”
Published in 2020, Father of Lions won immediate critical acclaim as both an animal rescue story and a war story, but also more-or-less fell through the cracks as the global COVID-19 pandemic broke, pushing the Iraq civil war that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion out of the headlines and American and British consciousness.
The “Father of Lions” himself
Titled in honor of Abu Laith, a mechanic and garage owner who dreams of founding a zoo large enough for the animals to run free, the first half of Father of Lions details how Laith educates himself about animal needs and behavior, beginning in boyhood, by adopting any animals he could and watching television programs, many of them distinctly misleading.
Eventually Laith becomes moderately wealthy, by Mosul standards. He becomes father of 14 human children by two wives, the first of whom dies of pancreatic cancer before Laith meets the second. Laith also forms an awkward business alliance with a local menagerie owner, Ibrahim, who allows Laith to be head keeper. Ibrahim himself rarely visits the animals.
When the Daesh invade Mosul, Laith tries to keep the menagerie of three lions, two bears, a baboon, several monkeys, and a variety of birds alive, evading Daesh jihadis who see him as an apostate and the enemy. As it is too dangerous for Laith himself to actually work at the zoo, he employs a caretaker, Marwan.
Marwan is dark-skinned lower caste young man seeking social mobility in a conservative Islamic society which supposedly has no caste system, but in reality observes a caste system so strict that Marwan practically needs a miracle even to find a wife.
Simultaneously, at times seemingly as an afterthought, Laith struggles to keep his family safe, a job chiefly accomplished by second wife Lumia, while Laith persuades the children to sacrifice some of their scarce food to feed the animals, and sends them out into the city to beg for edible spoilage from the few meat and produce vendors remaining in business.
Most of the animals are dead, despite the efforts of Laith and family, when the vivid war story changes directions about halfway through. Messages similar to the one relayed by Guzman to ANIMALS 24-7, perhaps even the same messages, bounce back to Hakam, a Mosul resident who discovers that Laith’s makeshift zoo is in his own neighborhood, and finds Laith to volunteer his help.
Those messages also reached Khalil, who connected with Hakam, who became Khalil’s chief fixer for arranging a rescue mission that transported the last surviving bear to a sanctuary in Jordan and sent the last surviving lion to the Lionsrock sanctuary operated by Vier Pfoten in South Africa.
The second half of Father of Lions details Khalil’s rescue mission.
Vier Pfoten founder Helmut Dungler hired Khalil in 1997 to lead mobile spay/neuter missions to former Iron Curtain nations. Khalil distinguished himself in that role, but became the public face of Vier Pfoten through facilitating dramatic rescues of captive wildlife.
(See Heart failure fells Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) founder Helmut Dungler, 56 and Kaavan flies to sanctuary with “elephant singers” Cher and Amir Khalil.)
Thorough as Callaghan’s summary of Khalil’s career is, and thorough as her account of his mission to Mosul is, Callaghan barely skims the surface of one of the most remarkable careers in veterinary history.
From the halls of the mountain kings to the shores of Tripoli
Among Khalil’s early successes was establishing the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park in the woodland reserves of the Rila mountains of Bulgaria in 2000, at last enabling Bulgarian police to enforce a 1993 law prohibiting dancing bear acts by giving them somewhere to take confiscated bears.
On September 9, 2011, days after the fall of former Libyan dictator Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, Khalil led a rescue team to the aid of the 700 animals at the Tripoli Zoo.
This made Vier Pfoten the first outside animal charity allowed to work in Libya in more than 40 years.
Bear rescue & rehab in Ukraine––& s/n too
After helping the Tripoli Zoo animals, Khalil in December 2011 helped to establish the bear Rehabilitation Centre at the National Nature Park Synevyr in Ukraine. The first rescued bear, Rosa, had “lived in a small cage next to a roadside gas station and motel,” living on “candies, sugar and coffee,” Khalil told media.
Eventually, through Khalil’s diplomacy, Vier Pfoten rescued 40 brown bears kept in terrible conditions across Ukraine in private captivity, in restaurants, hotels, roadside petrol stations, and zoos.
By February 2012 the Ukrainian bear rescue mission had progressed to rescuing bears used as live bait in training hunting dogs.
Along the way, Khalil and Vier Pfoten had introduced spay/neuter and identification programs for stray dogs in the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv.
What remains of those initiatives, in the wake of the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion, that devastated all four cities, is anyone’s guess.
In Thailand four years later, in 2016, Khalil encouraged the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to close the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, or “Tiger Temple,” in Kanchanaburi, reportedly impounding 147 tigers in a series of raids.
Unfortunately, the Thai government failed to implement plans to establish a quality sanctuary for the tigers, offered by Vier Pfoten and the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society. At least 86 of the confiscated tigers died at government holding facilities during the next three years.
“Worst zoo in the world”
In August 2016 Khalil arranged the closure of the Khan Yunis Zoo in the southern Gaza strip of Palestine, which had been called “the worst zoo in the world.”
“Earlier this year, the Khan Yunis Zoo began facing financial difficulties and could no longer adequately care for its animals,” reported Sharon Udasin of the Jerusalem Post. “In order to attract more visitors, the zoo’s owner took to exhibiting mummified cadavers of animals.”
The former Khan Yunis Zoo tiger Laziz went to the Lionrock sanctuary operated by Vier Pfoten in South Africa, a former hunting ranch rehabilitated under Khalil’s direction, while tortoises, porcupines, an emu and various other small animals went to the New Hope Center at the Al Ma’wa [Refuge] for Nature & Wildlife sanctuary in Jordan, jointly managed by Vier Pfoten and the Princess Alia Foundation.
These were also the destinations of the lion and bear from Mosul.
In July 2017 Khalil led a similar mission that ended with trucking three lions, two tigers, two bears, and two hyenas from the Aalim al Sahar or Magic World zoo in Aleppo, Syria, to a wildlife rehabilitation center in Turkey.
Khalil returned to Gaza for the fifth time altogether in March 2018, rescuing the starving Rafah Zoo animals by enlisting the aid of the head of the Hamas faction in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, waiting outside a hotel for three hours for a 15-minute meeting.
As this review was written Khalil was in Karachi, Pakistan, leading an eight-member Vier Pfoten team in performing a variety of surgeries on the infected tusks and injured feet of four elephants.
This mission followed Khalil’s November 2020 evacuation of an elephant named Kaavan from the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan to sanctuary in Cambodia. Kaavan had spent 35 years at the Islamabad Zoo, alone since the death of his female companion elephant in 2012.
(See Kaavan flies to sanctuary with “elephant singers” Cher and Amir Khalil.)
What an amazing story. So happy to learn about the struggle to save the zoo animals in Mosul, and about the career of Dr Amir Khalil, who we came to know early on in our campaign to rescue and relocate Kaavan from the zoo. He had to train Kaavan himself so that he trusted enough to be comfortable in the travel container, and on a cargo plane, and on road, which was a huge task. Kaavan had never left the zoo since he was gifted to it when he was around 2 yrs old. So Dr Amir spent a longer time with Kaavan than he normally did with other animals he rescues, and they got to know each other. He is a special man, very skilled and professional, so it is really very interesting to hear about his background. Thank you.