Two more Carolinians – in this case a pair of rare Bengal tiger cubs – have landed in Baghdad.
The Baghdad Zoo on Friday welcomed Riley and Hope, who were donated by an N.C. animal sanctuary.
The cubs frolicked with red-and-blue balls in a wading pool and wrestled with each other in their cage, while U.S. soldiers and journalists snapped pictures and delighted Iraqis strolled by.
The animals, donated by the Mebane-based Conservators' Center, arrived Monday after being flown to Baghdad – a $66,000 trip paid for by the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. military drove the tigers to the zoo.
Like many other Iraqi institutions, the Baghdad Zoo is struggling to emerge from years of war. Officials showed off the tigers as proof of progress.
“This is a good day for the tigers, the zoo and the people of Iraq,” zoo director Adel Salman Mousa said at a news conference at the park in central Baghdad.
But animal-rights activists led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals criticized the move, saying it was premature as Baghdad continues to suffer from violence and destroyed infrastructure.
They also pointed to past violence against animals at the zoo, many of which were killed amid widespread fighting and looting. A U.S. soldier shot and killed a tiger at the zoo in September 2003 after the animal bit another soldier who had reached through the bars of the cage to feed it.
“Our heart goes out to the two tigers who had to endure the long trip to Iraq and a dangerous future at the Baghdad Zoo,” PETA's Lisa Wathne said in an e-mailed statement. “These tigers will be caged, helpless, and completely dependent on humans to survive in an area where many people live in fear and are still without access to basic necessities.”
Actress Kim Basinger sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking it to revoke the export permit for the Bengal tigers, which are an endangered species.
The Conservators' Center, a nonprofit sanctuary and conservation breeding facility in Mebane, said it decided to send the tigers to Baghdad to help boost restoration efforts and education work at the zoo.
“We … have the utmost concern for the well-being of the tigers,” the organization's executive director, Mindy Stinner, said in a statement. “We have full confidence that the Baghdad Zoo has the staff and facilities to care for them long into the future.”
U.S. military and zoo officials said they had spent more than a year preparing for the tigers' arrival and expressed confidence their care would meet international standards.
Mousa said the staff has been trained to care for the tigers, which will be fed 13 to 18 pounds of red meat each day. It was the first foreign donation of animals to the zoo, which has 788 animals in 62 exhibits, he said. Mousa said he hoped to add more in the future to provide educational opportunities for Iraqi youths. An elephant and a giraffe are at the top of his wish list.
U.S. and Iraqi troops occasionally patrol the zoo – and it was heavily secured for Friday's press event – but security is normally provided by a private company, officials said.
For months after the invasion, before officials reasserted control, some wild animals roamed the park freely, including a bear that mauled three civilians. Three lions were shot to death when they tried to pounce on a contingent of invading American soldiers.
The surviving animals were nursed back to health, and others were brought to the main park from private zoos found in the palaces of ousted leader Saddam Hussein's family.
The zoo, which was established in 1973 and owned by Saddam's son Odai, has enjoyed a revival with the recent decline in violence, boasting an average of 2,000 to 3,000 visitors on weekdays and 10,000 daily on weekends, according to Mousa. That was up from about 120 per day in 2006, when sectarian attacks were pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
Ahmed al-Dairy, 38, brought his wife and three young sons to the zoo for the third time this year, saying it was the only decent public place to enjoy a day out in the heavily barricaded capital.
“Last year it was a very bad situation in Baghdad, but now it is good,” he said, standing in front of a cage holding two lions that was adjacent to the tigers. “Still there are bombings, but we must adapt to this.”