Tuesday, March 26, 2013

BOOKreMARKS: Camels in Cars, Dogs in Zoos

You couldn’t turn to a media outlet this past week without hearing about the anniversary. The tenth anniversary, that is, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Why did we do it? What did we accomplish? Was it worth it?

To mark this milestone, I have a book recommendation for you.

War is a topic I typically avoid when choosing books and films. But last month, a friend shoved a library book into my hands and said, “Here—I want you to read this. I loved it! Didn’t do anything for two days but read it.”

“Oh-kay…thanks,” was all I could muster. I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm. Yet I also didn’t a) want to be responsible for her library book; b) read about a war zone; and c) follow animals kept in a zoo. Reasons B and C promised gloom and doom.

I read it anyway, and I’m thankful I did.

Babylon’s Ark is a memoir of one man’s mission in the early days of the Iraq War to save the animals of the Baghdad Zoo. Lawrence Anthony left his home in South Africa, where he ran a wildlife preserve, armed only with knowledge about and compassion for large, wild animals—plus experience in negotiating on the fly.

This is not a sweet animal rescue tale. It’s full of adventure and darkness and provides some insights into the culture of Iraqis and their relationships with animals. Here are a handful of things I learned:
Until Lawrence Anthony created one, an agency overseeing animal welfare didn’t exist in Iraq. There was no ASPCA equivalent.
To much of the population, dogs were curiosities, hence their inclusion in zoos.
Black market trade in exotic animals thrives in Iraq.
Like royal families of millennia past, the Husseins had numerous private zoos on their palace grounds.
Improvisation is critical to rescue operations—which is how a camel ended up a passenger in an open-topped vehicle.

If I were the publisher of Babylon’s Ark, I’d also market it to a secondary audience: business professionals and leaders. It would be a great book to discuss in a corporate book club or leadership seminar because every step forward (and five steps backward) taken during the mission was the result of a negotiation or barter. Diplomacy, communication expertise, and psychological/cultural considerations were always in play. Nearly every obstacle recounted in Babylon’s Ark demanded careful communications and collaboration with someone whose goals and perspective were at odds with the animal rescuers. Even the animal rescuers were at times at odds with one another. Plenty of these scenarios could easily be applied to a business environment. Of course, the additional benefit of marketing to this audience is attracting new animal advocates and more people committed to becoming better stewards of our planet—which would have pleased the author no end.

Had he lived to see this tenth anniversary, I’m sure Lawrence Anthony would have plenty to say about it. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.

“This was to be our stand. This was more than just a zoo in a war zone. It was about making an intrinsically ethical and moral statement, saying: Enough is enough. You just can’t say to hell with the consequences to the animal kingdom. It’s all very well getting rid of a monster like Saddam, but that doesn’t mean we can forget what we are doing to the rest of our planet. It doesn’t excuse a zoo getting trashed just because nobody had the foresight to put a basic survival plan in place for hundreds of animals utterly dependent on humans.”

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