Global coalition unites to aid animals of Afghanistan zoo

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Marjan, the disfigured lion at the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, has become a powerful metaphor of the brutality and deprivation suffered by a war-torn country that most of the Western world was only vaguely aware of until recently.

The aged lion's maimed visage and story of how he lost his eye from a grenade blast—retaliation by an angry relative of a man Marjan mauled when he entered the lion's den—began making headlines after the start of the U.S.-led bombing campaign of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In short order, relief for the Afghan zoo became an international cause. By late November 2001, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, an animal welfare organization recognized by the United Nations, began providing a regular supply of food for the beleaguered menagerie.

At about that same time in the United States, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, responding to public requests and the concerns of its membership, joined the North Carolina Zoological Society with a goal to raise $10,000 of a $30,000 global relief fund collected by zoos in North America, Europe and Australia to provide food, staff pay, and basic veterinary care to the animals.

"The professionals in the North American zoo and aquarium community want to help in any way possible, so we have joined forces with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria to send aid to the Kabul Zoo," said Sydney Butler, executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

The response exceeded all expectations. "We passed the ten thousand [dollar] figure in two hours," explained Dr. David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoological Park. The society, which is the fund-raising arm for the park, is overseeing the U.S. portion of the relief efforts.

Dr. Jones is knowledgeable of central Asia and maintains a network of connections there, having been chief executive officer of the Zoological Society of London. He is the current chairman of Brooke Hospital for Animals, the largest animal welfare operation in Pakistan. The hospital is working in the refugee camps near the Afghan border, where about two million Afghans have gathered with their pack animals that are in need of veterinary care.

Once the U.S. relief fund had passed the $10,000 mark, it was decided that the N.C. Zoological Society would oversee the collection of the entire $30,000 from American donors—a goal that was achieved in a single day. As donations neared $80,000, the society publicized the fact that no additional contributions were needed for the zoo. But because of the overwhelming public support, a second fund was created to help Afghanistan's domestic animals.

The zoo is the "tip of a much, much bigger animal welfare problem on the [Afghan] domestic side," Dr. Jones said. Afghans depend on horses, mules, and donkeys for survival. These animals are also responsible for 95 percent of all transportation in the country, he said. Rabies and a burgeoning stray dog population are other immediate animal problems confronting the city.

At press time in January, the U.S. zoo fund had reached $353,000, with the domestic animal fund at $106,000, according to a N.C. Zoological Park spokesman.

As donations continue to pour in—$5,000 to $8,000 a day—they are distributed between the two funds, Dr. Jones said, adding that such support is "typical of the American public." In comparison, he said, contributions in Europe, where the Kabul Zoo story has not been as popular, have reached around $20,000.

Today's Kabul Zoo is a shadow of its former self. Established in the late 1960s by the zoological department of Kabul University and supported by the Cologne Zoo in Germany, Kabul Zoo had a collection of about 500 animals at its zenith. But a decade of conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, followed by years of tribal fighting around the Afghan capital, have left the zoo in shambles.

Most of the animals have died, been killed, or been eaten, according to Dr. Jones, who visited the zoo in 1988. Now there are only about 40 animals left, crowded into makeshift cages because their normal enclosures are badly damaged. While details are sketchy, they are a motley assortment comprising the lion Marjan, a black bear, wolves, gazelles, a variety of birds, and several domestic animals, including rabbits, goats, and sheep.

Marjan, the one-eyed lion, in 1995

Reports from a veterinarian in Kabul indicate that Marjan's wounds are healed and he eats well. The black bear, however, has an injured nose—likely the result of a beating—that requires medical attention. The rest of the animals appear to be well but are malnourished. "On the whole, we don't believe there is an outstanding emergency there, but clearly there's going to be a need for veterinary input in the next month or two," Dr. Jones said.

In January the WSPA dispatched a team of disaster relief specialists to Kabul. The situation there was still unsafe, with air transport restricted mostly to soldiers and humanitarian aid workers. The WSPA mission is to address the health needs of the zoo animals and assess those of the domestic animal populations. "The current crisis in Afghanistan has become a terrible tragedy for the people of the region and their animals," said WSPA international projects director, John Walsh, part of the team traveling to Kabul.

Walsh and his team were provided with $5,000 from the U.S. relief fund to deal with the immediate needs at the zoo, namely, food for the animals and staff pay, according to Dr. Jones. Zoo workers have gone without pay since July 2001. Regarding the domestic animal situation, $20,000 was given, along with a promise of another $20,000 once an assessment can be made.

The money collected for Kabul Zoo will help for at least a couple of years, and go a long way toward repairing the facilities and grounds and training Afghans to look after the zoo. Some exiled Afghans who formerly worked at the zoo are, in fact, now interested in returning. In addition, a number of German zoologic institutions may support Kabul Zoo on a long-term basis, Dr. Jones said.

The funds may also be used to create a program employing women to teach zoo visitors about animal care and welfare.

To those few critics of the efforts to help Kabul Zoo, Dr. Jones responds that the Afghan culture's low view of animals is a consequence of poverty, ignorance, and living in a society of endemic violence. But these are not reasons to abandon the animals. "If we can do something to help the Kabul Zoo reestablish itself," he continues, "it's probably one of the few places moms and kids will be able to visit safely in that war-torn city."

Those interested in donating to Kabul Zoo can send a check or money order marked Kabul Zoo and made out to the North Carolina Zoological Society, 4403 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro, NC 27203-9416. For more information, visit

Postscript: Marjan was found dead in his cage Jan. 26 of possible kidney and liver failure.