We had been talking about a smattering of topics related to the 2003 Iraq invasion, but I must admit I wasn’t paying my best attention to the conversation between the soldier posing for his portrait and the sculptor next to me. I was mixing a color, or hunting for a new brush, when I heard the soldier say, “That was my company! Idiots.”
“What was your company?” I asked him.
“You know, the lion. Or was it a tiger?”
“Oh yeah,” said my partner in portraiture, sculptor Christopher Wagner, “Someone did a graphic novel about it. Something about rescuing the animals, or the animals escaping and going all over the city.”
The soldier had worked as part of a psychological operations unit in Baghdad shortly after the invasion. He was the people who design and publish materials for handing out or broadcasting to civilians and the enemy, telling the story from the American point of view, or warning them to lay down their arms or face serious consequences.
I wondered what poster or radio bit they’d do to spin the story he sketched for us. The details were foggy, but more or less it went like this: A bunch of drunk soldiers go into the Baghdad zoo soon after the invasion and start taunting a big cat—either a lion or a tiger. The cat attacks one guy who’s dumb enough to go into the cage, ripping off his arm. His companions shoot it, then they—the government or somebody—get another cat from the United States to replace the Baghdad Zoo cat they shot.
I had to look this up.
Sure enough, a quick internet search brings up articles from an array of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, the Russian newspaper Pravda, and Agence France-Presse. Great Britain’s Globe and Mail apparently picked up the AP wire with this headline from Sept. 20, 2003: “‘Drunk’ US Soldier Shoots Rare Tiger in Baghdad Zoo.”
Here’s the lead: “A U.S. soldier shot and killed an endangered tiger at the Baghdad zoo after it bit another soldier who had drunkenly reached through the bars of its cage to feed it, a security guard said Saturday.” The story goes on to say that other sources have him going into the cage and that the tiger mauled the soldier’s arm and tore off one of his fingers. The tiger, which had been born at the zoo and had lived there 14 years, wasn’t the only animal that got into trouble with people during and after the 2003 invasion. The story says a bear “mauled and partially ate three civilians,” and it mentions three lions “shot to death when they tried to pounce on a contingent of invading American soldiers.” Hence the motivation for the graphic novel about the zoo animals running amok?
Then I found USA Today reported in 2008 that two Bengal tiger cubs were donated by a North Carolina animal sanctuary to the Baghdad Zoo in some kind of connection to that 2003 drunk soldier incident.
And there’s more to the story. First off, a clue on why the confusion between lion and tiger. A little more research brings up a South African named Lawrence Anthony, who wrote the book Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. His 2007 interview on NPR’s now cancelled show Talk of the Nation references a lion named “Marjan” that became famous in Kabul, Afghanistan, especially after the American invasion there. “He was blinded. He had a hand grenade thrown at him. He was left starving in his cage.” Anthony says that story was part of his reason for trying to rescue animals in the Baghdad zoo. (Incidentally, he’s known as the first non-journalist civilian to travel from Kuwait into Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. The statue had been pulled down by a tank recovery vehicle; Iraqis were shown on a video loop hitting it with shoes. We all remember that scene.)
Anthony says he found a disaster in Baghdad. “Absolutely horrific.” On his arrival to the zoo, he was told that shooting the animals was the only way to humanely deal with this, the largest zoo in the Middle East. Looters had taken food, water, and animals to be sold or consumed. “The city was starving at the time. So they were eating the animals.” Every day, he would visit all the rest of the animals, those with claws and jaws big enough to defend themselves from the looters. He tried to keep them from becoming too stressed out. He cleaned their cages, haggled to get generators to power the zoo (while the whole city begged for electricity), and bought donkeys in the area, slaughtering them to feed the big cats and bears.
In the interview, he references the graphic novel. Alas lions running around Baghdad isn’t true, says Anthony. Three lions did escape briefly and all were promptly shot.
“I don’t personally believe in the concept of zoos,” Anthony says at the end of the interview. He prefers to preserve habitat. He went to Baghdad for the animals, he says. And good things came from that for people, too. Since Anthony did his work there, there has not been any bomb or shooting inside the zoo.
“In a way it seems that it was easier to rally around the cause of these animals than it was to rally around anything else,” observes host Neil Conan. I love that line for the way it’s both obvious and deeply insightful.
All this got me wondering about the difference between the reaction to the death of a noble, prized cat and the deaths of people. With an estimated 140,000 civilian dead due to the invasion and subsequent violence in Iraq (see Iraq Body Count https://www.iraqbodycount.org), does America owe in a similar way? Should we take the county of Alamance, North Carolina, where the tiger cubs were born (Population: 153,000), and transfer everyone to Iraq to replace those dead? That’s politically impossible, even if you don’t see how unjust it would be to North Carolinians—but what’s the difference when it comes to animals? What is it about a big cat that sparks the complicated set of motivations in a guy like Lawrence Anthony? He felt moved to rescue cats, not people. He did this harrowing thing to keep these animals alive by revitalizing a zoo, yet he despises the concept of zoos.
Listening to Anthony’s interview, I thought of Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Animals.” He writes, “our sentimentality toward animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them. … It is in proportion to being relegated to irresponsibility, to the inhuman, that the animal becomes worthy of the human ritual of affection and protection, just as the child does in direct proportion to being relegated to the status of innocence and childishness” (Simulacra and Simulation, p. 134). Baudrillard’s job as a literary critic was to provoke (and sound smart by writing complicated sentences). He’s saying that as our species has grown and learned to make our environment more comfortable for us, we’ve lost our respect for animals as dangerous, mysterious equals. It’s that old Great Chain of Being story. God the Creator made us in His image and gave us dominion over the animals and the earth. It’s ours to manage, so we can either profit from animals or show animals sentimental affection. The choice is “cat as possession” or “cat as dependent.” Neither grants cats power on the level of autonomous adults.
As a painter I’m still trying to pin down what this zoo incident and the reactions to it mean for our daily studio practice, making these portraits with veterans who were there, doing their best at the zoo. Something about the consequences of combat being wider and stranger than we expect, and being available to the emotional education we can find if we look deeper into the stories we tell.
“Between Here and There” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.