The Unfortunate Incident at the Baghdad Zoo


Interesting Associated Press item buried deep in the Sunday Boston Globe:

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A U.S. soldier shot and killed a tiger at the Baghdad zoo after it bit another soldier who had reached through the bars of its cage to feed it, a zoo security guard said Saturday. The soldiers had been drinking beer when they entered the zoo Thursday night after it closed, said the guard, Zuhair Abdul-Majeed.

"He was drunk," Abdul-Majeed said of the bitten soldier. After the man was bit, the other American shot the tiger three times in the head and killed it, Abdul-Majeed told the Associated Press. It was impossible to reach the U.S. military spokesman’s office because the telephones have not worked for three days.

Subsequent reports have added details. This wasn’t just any tiger, but a Bengal tiger, and the most valuable animal in the zoo. Agence France-Presse tells us that the tiger bit off the soldier’s finger and mauled his arm. AFP also informs us that Uday Hussein was a "lover of big cats," and that some of the cats in the zoo had been transferred from Saddam’s palaces. That could be important in the upcoming investigation (immediately requested by the World Society for the Protection of Animals); one could creatively spin this to establish a terrorist connection between the beast and the late son of the Iraqi leader.

The first question to pop into my mind was, what beer were these fine young men drinking? Many people in this country incorrectly assume that alcohol is banned in all Arab countries because the Qur’an prohibits drinking. But having a wide circle of Muslim friends and acquaintances (Moroccans, Bosniaks, Pakistanis) who love their beer, and having enjoyed the fine "Sakara" brew available anywhere in Cairo, I know this isn’t the case. Any student of beer history knows it was first brewed in ancient Sumeria (Iraq) and Egypt, and it takes more than a religion to quash so elegant and refined a cultural tradition. I’ve read that Iraq under Saddam produced a lot of beer, which Christians if not Muslims were allowed to sell (only warm, for some reason) and which anyone could consume in their own home. I see reports that Israel is now entering the Iraqi market with its own beers, which seems logical, somehow. But I digress.

Back to the zoo. I’m not inclined to be judgmental at all. It’s perfectly reasonable for stressed-out GIs, who shouldn’t be in Iraq, who might for all I know be underage and inexperienced, to binge a bit during off-hours and head to the zoo. Anyway you have this guy trying to feed a tiger through the bars of his cage. A noble impulse, probably, although we don’t know what he was feeding it. U.S. troops have often in past occupations offered chocolate to the local children; I suspect it encourages a positive self-image, especially if you’ve accidentally killed kids in the previous 24 hours. Perhaps this tiger-feeding was a gesture of repentance that unfortunately went awry when the feline bit the hand feeding it. Just like the Iraqi people, who are supposed to be grateful, keep biting at the occupation, causing similar confusion and violent reactions among the occupiers.

Why did the good soldier’s buddy shoot the Bengal? Sounds like the animal was still behind bars, so it wasn’t a fair fight at all. I know everything’s changed since 9-11, because WE WERE ATTACKED, and so logic and compassion and morality are officially no longer relevant. But I agree with WSPA that we need an accounting here. Lots of Baghdadi kids, including aspiring zoologists among the well-educated Iraqi population, held the 14 year old cat in high regard and regret its assassination by drunken foreign aggressors. The Bremer people are, I take it, offering to compensate the families of the eight collaborator cops the occupiers accidentally, collaterally killed last week. Are there similar plans to compensate the zoo? (A Bengal tiger will fetch a much higher price on E-bay than the U.S. military pays out per head in compensation for accidental killings.) Hopefully some investigative journalist on site will stay on this story.

People drunk with power and ambition have placed their hands deep into the tiger cage which was Saddam’s Iraq. Predictably, they’ve been bitten badly. Such is the view of a young North African friend of mine who, when I brought this story to his attention, brought mine to a well-known hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad) that appears in several collections of such sayings. (See Bukhari 1/495; http://www.islamanswers.net/moreAbout/Mercy.htm or http://hadith.al-islam.com or any hadith collection.) These sayings, in Muslim belief, carry equal weight with the Holy Qur’an. The gist of the passage is that a woman once held a cat in confinement and mistreating it, caused its death. "She entered Hell-fire because of it" Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate, just doesn’t countenance cruelty to animals.

The American hero mentioned above, who shot the caged cat at the Baghdad Zoo, had already entered the Hell-fire of occupied Iraq, a hell created not by any deity, but by leaders who rival the fiercest beasts in their efforts to expand their empire. It’s the god-awfullest situation. Might even drive a man to drink. This isn’t the drunk dudes’ fault, and I sincerely hope that the injured soldier gets his finger re-attached so that, returning from hell to the bosom of his family, he can flip it in the face of the power structure that dispatched him to Iraq in the first place.

Getting bit? The intelligent thing to do is withdraw your hand. Sober up. Drop the gun. Get out of there.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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