N.C. tigers headed to Baghdad

To see Riley the tiger sunk to his whiskers in a 100-gallon tub, swishing his tail like an oversized kitten, you'd never guess he's about to ship out to Iraq.

Nor do any jitters show on the striped face of his mate, Hope, as she lazes in a mud puddle nearby.

But Riley and Hope will soon be stars of the Baghdad Zoo. These big cats, raised in captivity in the Caswell County woods, represent progress in a war that seldom brings good news.

The Baghdad Zoo barely survived the Iraq war's early days. Prized animals were looted or shot. An ostrich was fed to starving lions. An American soldier shot and killed a Bengal tiger that attacked a colleague trying to feed it through cage bars.

Now, though, soldiers and Iraqis describe the zoo as the rare spot in Baghdad where you can forget about war. Sitting just outside the Green Zone, it reminds visitors of normal life. For 25 American cents, you can growl at a bear, laugh along with a hyena, point at a porcupine.

“You just feel safe,” said Capt. Jason Felix, whose unit is in charge of the zoo. “It's like you're not really in Iraq. It's kind of the one real success story.”

In December, Felix decided the zoo needed a tiger – a marquee animal that would draw crowds.

The zoo already had lions, some of them the former personal pets of Uday Hussein, Saddam's son.

Word reached Mindy Stinner at Caswell's Conservators' Center in January.

The military wanted a tiger for the Baghdad Zoo. Her first thought: totally unsafe.

She and Douglas Evans keep 87 animals at Conservators' Center.

Hidden on 45 acres outside Mebane, they share space with three red foxes, a pair of gray wolves, lions, tigers, bobcats, lemurs, kinkajous and binturongs – often called Asian bearcats.

They usually take animals from places shut down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including 14 lions and tigers in 2004 from a single owner who had been feeding them rancid meat.

Some of the animals get placed at new sites, including a pair of big cats on loan to the Greensboro Natural Science Center.

But this time, Stinner and Evans were being asked to find a pair of tigers for a zoo they had never seen. They got assurance from three veterinarians in Iraq. They saw pictures of the cages online and took comfort in the trees and swimming pool the tigers will use.

“These are our children,” said Stinner, 40. “We don't have any other kind. There are so many parents who have sent their kids off to Iraq with less assurance than we have.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has said it is “cruel and irresponsible to put tigers in harm's way in a country where most of the people don't even have access to basic necessities.”