Why the residents of war-torn Mosul are fighting to save the animals from a local zoo
The city of Mosul has become a central battleground in the fight against ISIS, and human civilians aren't the only ones getting caught up in the crossfire.
As many as 600,000 civilians are still trapped in the ISIS-occupied neighbourhoods of western Mosul. Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the city.
But in one eastern Mosul neighbourhood, a group of local volunteers have teamed up to save two improbable victims: Simba the lion and Lula the bear.
If I have the intention to save two lives, or two creatures — I think, for the team, it's enough.- Dr. Amir Khalil , veterinary surgeon with Four Paws International
They are the only two surviving animals at the now-decrepit Muntazah al-Nour zoo, which was abandoned in the midst of the fighting. The neighbourhood was reclaimed from ISIS by Iraqi forces earlier this year.
The animals are in desperate condition, confined in small cages and unable to flee the conflict that is erupting all around them.
And as Dr. Amir Khalil tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the zoo's neighbours have set out to save the animals, even though they don't have food or electricity themselves.
Trapped in a conflict zone
Dr. Khalil is a veterinary surgeon. He works with Four Paws International, an international animal welfare charity that has rescued animals from war zones in the past.
The organization learned about the animals at the Muntazah al-Nour zoo when concerned locals reached out to them on Facebook, begging them for help.
Monkeys had escaped from the zoo and attacked local children, leaving them panicked.
"They [were] desperate; they [didn't] know how to deal with these two animals," Khalil says.
In February, Khalil and a small team of volunteers traveled to Mosul to deliver supplies and treat the animals.
They... hear all these bombs and the missiles and the fights, and they never understand what happened.- Dr. Amir Khalil, veterinary surgeon with Four Paws International
When they arrived at the zoo, the animals had been without care for 60 days, Khalil says. The facility was filthy; several cages had been destroyed by missiles.
"I saw a disaster picture; I saw a horror movie," Khalil says. "It was a very bad situation."
Forty other animals that had been housed at the zoo perished in the conflict, including two baby bears and a female lion who ate her mate before dying of starvation.
"No water, no electricity; it was just [some] neighbours who were able to bring some food to try to help the animals," Khalil says. "It was very sad; but they don't know even what to feed the animals."
In addition to their failing health, the two surviving animals bore tell-tale signs of psychological distress, according to Khalil.
"They were in small, tiny cages… moving front and back all the time," he says. "Psychologically, I believe, they also hear all these bombs and the missiles and the fights, and they never understand what happened."
During their visit, Khalil's team trained four of the zoo's neighbours to provide Simba and Lula with adequate care. The organization is now paying them a salary to continue the work.
Eventually, Four Paws hopes to evacuate the animals to a sanctuary outside Iraq.
"They survived the military conflict; survived hunger; survived all [the] bombs and the missiles," says Khalil.
"I think they have the will [to survive]."
Enduring kindness in a war zone
In spite of the difficult conditions he witnessed, Khalil expressed admiration for the locals who attempted to keep the animals alive, even as their own families were struggling to find food.
"I think some of the neighbours were very kind," he says.
"They never cared before in their life for wild animals, so they tried to feed the bear — maybe [it was the] wrong food, but they tried."
Humans have the option to escape and to be evacuated. These two animals don't have this option.- Dr. Amir Khalil, veterinary surgeon with Four Paws International
As a veterinary surgeon who regularly travels to war zones, Khalil believes it would be inhumane to leave the animals to suffer.
"We will kill each other; but to leave the animals this way, it's not humanity. It's not a humane message for our children."
For Khalil, the local volunteers' determination to help these animals was symbolic.
"Humanity cannot be divided; kindness could not be divided... I cannot be a kind person, but just kind [to other] humans," Khalil says.
"This is the same language [that] ISIS uses. They separate human beings; they divide them. But a humane message, I think it should be for all creatures."
When the Four Paws team arrived at the zoo, the locals saw it as a message of hope, Khalil says.
"It was a great message; and a lesson for me, too."
A dangerous mission
Getting into Mosul with food and veterinary supplies for the animals was not easy for the Four Paws team, Khalil says.
Since the beginning of this year, Iraqi forces have regained control of many of the city's neighbourhoods, reclaiming the local airport, museum, train station and provincial government headquarters.
But Mosul continues to be rocked with violence as Iraqi government forces continue to fight ISIS for control over the armed group's last urban stronghold.
Khalil has travelled to war zones in the past, including a 2014 rescue mission at a zoo in the Gaza Strip. But he says he was unnerved by the situation in Mosul.
"To be honest, we felt more safe in Gaza than in Mosul," he says. "In Mosul, [there] was too much going on; and … the [ISIS fighters'] sleeping cells are everywhere."
Khalil says he and his volunteers heard bombs exploding nearby while they were caring for the animals at the zoo.
Nonetheless, he is determined to return to Mosul.
"If I have the intention to save two lives, or two creatures — I think, for the team, it's enough."
To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Dr. Amir Khalil, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.