As It Happens

'It's like Mission Impossible,' says vet who helped rescue starving animals from Aleppo zoo

The sick and emaciated animals rescued from an abandoned zoo in war-torn Aleppo are "ambassadors for peace" in Syria, says the veterinarian who helped save them.
Four Paws rescued 13 animals trapped in the abandoned and mostly destroyed Magic World amusement park near Aleppo. (Four Paws)
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The sick and emaciated animals rescued from an abandoned zoo in war-torn Aleppo are "ambassadors for peace," says the veterinarian who helped organize the evacuation efforts.

Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws International told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay that animals "give hope for people."

Khalil and a team of rescuers have just successfully transported 13 animals more than 1,000 kilometres from the Magic World amusement park near Aleppo to the northwestern Turkish city of Karacabey.

It took six weeks of careful planning and two separate trips to rescue the five lions — one of which is pregnant — two tigers, two bears, two hyenas and two dogs.

A bear gnaws at its cage at the Magic World amusement park near Aleppo in July 2017. Locals did their best to keep the animals alive after the zoo's owner fled to the U.S. five years ago. (Four Paws)

"It's like mission impossible," Khalil said.

The team had to co-ordinate with the Turkish government, private security firms and Syrians on the ground to move the creatures safely across the Syrian border. 

"If you go with convoy with wild animals, there's snipers on both sides of the roads," he said.

"Military airplanes can bomb them because they might think we are smuggling weapons. So it was very risky, very dangerous and we needed a lot of preparation."

Four Paws transported the animals from a zoo near Aleppo, Syria, to a facility in Karacabey, Turkey. (CBC)

Before the war, there were hundreds of animals at Magic World, but most died from injuries or starvation after the zoo's owner fled to the U.S. five years ago. He gave Four Paws permission to take the remaining creatures. 

"It is very sad," Khalil said. "They are in tiny cages, a small place. Missiles are going through. Bombs. The animals don't understand. They are really traumatized. They don't understand that this is a war."

Four Paws workers transport the rescued zoo animals. (Four Paws)

The few animals that have survived the bloody conflict were kept alive by the people of Aleppo, who made an effort to feed them even as food was scarce.

"Kindness should not be divided, and this is the reason we find that lots of persons, even in the war zones, they have hearts and they care," Khalil said.

The animals were emaciated and had open wounds. (Four Paws)

Once the creatures made it safely to Turkey, they were given much-needed medical treatment. 

"They were not in very good condition," Khalil said. "Not at all."

They were all severely emaciated from malnutrition, he said, and many of them had open wounds on their skin.

One of the hyenas has been diagnosed with kidney disease, and one of the tigers has a heart problem.

The rescued animals were then delivered to a facility in Karacabey, where they received thorough medical examinations. (Four Paws)

Now that the animals have been tagged and treated, Khalil said the next step is to get them to their new homes at animal sanctuaries in Jordan and Holland.

He commended his teammates, who he said are exhausted after many sleepless nights pulling off the complicated rescue effort. 

"The journey is not over yet," he said. "I will be very glad in the coming days to release animals to touch the grass the first time in their life."

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