Review: Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

I grabbed this book on one of my ‘Whee, look at all the free books!’ sprees in the library. You know, where you’ll pick up anything that looks even mildly interesting because hey, it’s not like you have to pay for this. And just for the record, I did borrow this completely legally and on purpose, as Hannah from Once Upon A Time now blames me for the disappearance of every library book in every library in the entire world.

When the Iraq war began, conservationist Lawrence Anthony could think of only one thing: the fate of the Baghdad Zoo, located in the city centre and caught in the war’s crossfire. Once Anthony entered Baghdad he discovered that full-scale combat and uncontrolled looting had killed nearly all the animals of the zoo. But not all of them. U.S. soldiers had taken the time to help care for the remaining animals, and the zoo’s staff had returned to work in spite of the constant fire fights. Together, the Americans and Iraqis managed to keep alive the animals that had survived the invasion. “Babylon’s Ark” chronicles the zoo’s transformation from bombed-out rubble to peaceful park. Along the way, Anthony recounts hair-raising efforts to save a pride of the dictator’s lions, close a deplorable black-market zoo, and rescue Saddam’s Arabian horses.

To my discredit, I don’t know a whole lot about the Iraq war. I watch the news most days but with so much changing information and different points of view, I find it quite hard to keep track of. Thankfully though, this isn’t written assuming that you know all the ins and outs of the conflict; it keeps you informed in an easy but not condescending manner.

This is primarily about the animals though. This book actually managed to disgust me – Lawrence’s almost-tangible aborhence of the way they’re treated and abused filters through the pages and infects you with the desire to run out and stab those responsible yourself. It’s horrible, and a sad consequence of war that had never occurred to me. Thing is, it’s mostly avoidable. People chose to do those disgusting things to animals and Lawrence really emphasises that in his book.

But then again, a large portion of Babylon’s Ark shows how human nature is often responsible for great things. The author admits himself that he couldn’t have saved the zoo if he hadn’t befriended the American soldiers. They often fed their own meals to the animals and salvaged meat and zoo equipment whenever they were able – just because they knew the plight of those animals wasn’t right. Then there’s also Iraqi zoo workers who trailed for an hour through an active war zone to work in their zoo. Lawrence never for one minute claims to have saved the zoo by himself; he frequently mentions the hundreds of people who all did their part.

I was a little apprehensive about starting it, because war stories are often a little dry and slow. Not this one. I was sucked in after about three pages. It’s half moving animal story and half exciting innocent-in-a-war-zone story; so the book whizzes past. I couldn’t put it down.

Even the writing style is more than passable. I’m a pain in the arse for spotting bad writing, but it just wasn’t here. The descriptions of the zoo, the animals and the country make you feel as though you were really there, dodging bullets with the author, and his personality shines clearly through with every word.

As you can probably tell, I loved this book. Sometimes it made me so angry I got that tight feeling in my stomach, but mostly it moved me to a ridiculous extent. You don’t need to be an animal-lover particularly, nor do you have to like war stories; it’s a cliche but there really is something in it for everyone.


  1. Hannah says:

    "Hannah from Once Upon A Time now blames me for the disappearance of every library book in every library in the entire world." It's true. I do that.

  2. I dimly seem to remember having heard about this but have no idea why. I kind of think that reading it would just make me want to cry for the next few days, though.

    I'm not really an animal person (big dogs, large birds and cows all being phobias of mine…) but I still hate the idea of poor zoo animals being caught up in conflict. I'm much too emotional to come away from reading this unscathed so I might not pick it up but you manage to make it as though I should. (Ach, does that even make sense?!)

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