Cablegate: Baghdad Zoo -- Respite From the Urban Jungle

DE RUEHGB #0501/01 0521318
P 211318Z FEB 08




E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/21/2018

Classified By: Deputy Political Counselor Greg D'Elia for reasons 1.4 ( b,d).

1. (C) SUMMARY: The Baghdad Zoo has reportedly become the most popular destination for family outings in Baghdad. Attendance increased dramatically in 2007, and continues to rise. The Zoo Director told visiting poloff on February 11 that approximately 8,000 people visit the Zoo every weekend, with families and couples comprising the majority of its customers. The Chief Veterinarian noted, however, that most visitors come from surrounding neighborhoods; residents of more distant districts, including all six outlying qadas, remain averse to taking a risky trip across Baghdad. He also reported that, since 2003, local schools have stopped sending student groups to the Zoo -- a regular practice before the war began. Nonetheless, Baghdadis increasingly seek out the Zoo's tranquility and calm, as well as its special features -- including the daily slaughter of two donkeys to feed the lions, and exotic fish with an image of the Iraqi flag etched permanently into their scales. The Baghdad Amanat, the local EPRT, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and ITAO have all devoted resources to the reconstruction and renovation of the Zoo. END SUMMARY.

------------------------------------------- RAPID RISE IN NUMBER OF VISITORS TO THE ZOO -------------------------------------------

2. (C) Baghdad Zoo Director Adel Salman Mousa (strictly protect) estimated February 11 that the Zoo now welcomes approximately 8,000 visitors every weekend, making it the most popular public park in Baghdad. "Hundreds" also come every week day, explained Wassem Ameen (strictly protect), the Zoo's Chief Veterinarian. As proof of the rising attendance rates, Mousa cited the Zoo's dramatic increase in revenues. In 2006, Mousa said, the Zoo's revenues from entrance fees totaled four million ID (USD 3,309). In 2007, these revenues rose to 32 million ID (USD 26, 479). In January 2008, the Zoo earned 8 million ID (USD 6,619), already doubling earnings for all of 2006. (NOTE: Each adult visitor pays a government-subsidized admission price of 250 ID (USD 0.20), and children enter for free. END NOTE.) To accommodate the growing interest, the number of Zoo employees recently climbed to approximately 100 workers, Mousa said, including 14 veterinarians.

--------------------------------------------- --- BUT MOST VISITORS LIVE IN DISTRICTS NEAR THE ZOO --------------------------------------------- ---

3. (C) The Baghdad Zoo feels secure to Iraqi visitors, Ameen explained, in large part due to its proximity to the international zone. It is located inside Karkh district's Zawra Park, a 580-dunum, landscaped area that serves as Baghdad's largest public garden. Iraqi Security Forces have sealed off all of Zawra Park's entrances except for two, and the Zoo now has only one entry point.

4. (C) Despite its reputation as a secure destination for families, Ameen explained, the Zoo does not attract visitors from all of Baghdad province. It largely serves visitors from the city center -- from Karkh, where the park is located, as well as Mansour, Rashid, and Karada districts. Ameen said that many people still prefer not to risk a long trip across Baghdad with their families in order to visit the Zoo. Other post contacts confirm this assessment. Residents of populous central districts, such as Sadr City and Adhamiya, and the six outlying "counties" (qadas), including Abu Ghraib and Mahmoudiya, visit the Zoo less often than do residents of areas adjacent to the Zoo.

5. (C) Ameen noted that 9 Nissan district boasts Baghdad's second most popular public commons, Kanat Museum and Park. Kanat mainly serves visitors from Sadr City and 9 Nissan. Mansour and Karada districts contain several, smaller public spaces, and Rusafa's popular Abu Nuwas street has recently revived.

--------------------------------------------- ----- EID DELIGHT -- "BIGGEST CROWDS EVER" AT ZAWRA PARK --------------------------------------------- -----

6. (C) None of Baghdad's public spaces, however, attract as many visitors as the Zoo and Zawra Park, according to Zoo administrators and post's local contacts. Mousa reported that he saw more people in Zawra Park during Eid in December 2007 than he has ever seen before during the 18 years that he has served as Zoo Director. He estimated that over a million visitors came to the park over the course of the holiday. Ameen concurred, adding that he witnessed a "vast sea of faces" during Eid. Mousa explained that people came to the park despite the risks of joining such a huge crowd because they felt "pent up" and "sought release." BAGHDAD 00000501 002 OF 002

----------------------------------------- FAMILIES AND COUPLES, BUT NO SCHOOL TRIPS -----------------------------------------

7. (C) Mostly families with young children and couples currently visit the Baghdad Zoo, Mousa and Ameen said. Small organized trips also come from veterinary schools and orphanages. Many people return regularly. Approximately a dozen adult visitors to the Zoo told poloff February 11 that they return often because they find it peaceful and tranquil. Ameen claimed that the Zoo is "one of the safest places in Baghdad."

8. (C) Ameen also noted that, before 2003, almost every school in Baghdad province scheduled an annual trip to the Zoo. No school trips have come since the war began, he reported. If the security situation in Baghdad continues to improve, Ameen speculated, school groups may start to return in 2009.

--------------------------------------------- ---- GIVING SADDAM'S EXOTIC ANIMALS BACK TO THE PEOPLE --------------------------------------------- ----

9. (C) Ameen said that the Baghdad Zoo staff took particular pleasure in reclaiming for the Iraqi public the exotic animals formerly possessed by Saddam Hussein and his family. Uday's pampered cheetah is now tame enough for visitors to pet. Two of Saddam's three lions gave birth last year to three cubs each; now the Zoo has nine lions on display. The Zoo also has in its possession Saddam Hussein's former stallion, Al Abor -- "the most famous horse in Iraq," according to Mousa. Saddam Hussein rode Al Abor in countless parades and public ceremonies.

---------------------------- ZOO HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS ----------------------------

10. (C) The Baghdad Zoo also featured some primitive practices, including the daily slaughter of two donkeys to feed the lions, and some modern flourishes, such as exotic fish with an image of the Iraqi flag lasered permanently into their scales. (NOTE: These fish sport the old Iraqi flag. Zoo staff could not predict whether they will employ laser surgery to amend these now-outlawed, swimming flags. END NOTE.) To ease the trauma of the brown bears' move from Saddam Hussein's possession into the Zoo, staff reportedly plied them with copious amounts of Arak; visitors repeated rumors that the disheveled bears continue to imbibe this powerful drink.

-------------------------------- IMPROVEMENTS TO THE ZOO ON-GOING --------------------------------

11. (C) The Baghdad Amanat has invested in renovation projects, including reconstruction of a restaurant inside the Zoo. Other visible Amanat restoration work, such as the repair of an elegant walkway at the entrance, continue to progress. Various USG entities have also helped to develop the Zoo's infrastructure and professional capacity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted a veterinary needs assessment in August 2007 and this assessment currently informs the Zoo's planned improvements. A leading USDA veterinarian reports that the Zoo's 14 Iraqi veterinarians lack the necessary equipment and knowledge to ensure the well-being of the animals and the health of the visiting public.

12. (C) To help address these deficiencies, ITAO officers have worked to facilitate a training trip for some of the Zoo's veterinarians to the Chester Zoo in England, where they would receive mentoring and supervised training. Also, the local EPRT provided the Zoo with computers and a high-speed internet link to faculty members of North Carolina State University, who use the link to conduct training for the Zoo's veterinarians. Several private companies and non-governmental organizations in the U.S. have provided the Zoo financial and in-kind support. CROCKER

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