Labor pains

Good intentions clash with harsh reality of repairing Kabul Zoo
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After the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, the real work began: rebuilding an entire country from the ground up. Even the most optimistic assessments conclude it will take several years and a steady stream of foreign aid before the Afghan society stabilizes.

Some of the more poignant images emerging during the U.S.-led war on the Taliban were of the emaciated and battered animals housed at the dilapidated Kabul Zoo. Marjan, the one-eyed lion, symbolized the brutality of a region ravaged by a decade of Soviet occupation, constant tribal conflict, and the harsh rule of Islamic fundamentalists.

Public support was immediate and exceeded all expectations as animal welfare and conservation groups rushed to help the zoo's harassed collection. Thousands of dollars poured in daily and $530,000 was collected in a short time (see JAVMA, Feb. 15, 2002, page 434).

So much money came in that two funds were created, one specifically for Kabul Zoo and the other to help the country's domestic animals. Afghanistan is an agrarian society where horses, mules, and donkeys are the chief means of transportation.

But amassing more than half a million dollars in donations was the easy part. The challenge now is making sure that the funds are used to provide the animals with adequate shelter, food and water, and veterinary care, which is especially difficult when it hasn't always been clear who's in charge.

"The problem that we've had is nobody could tell us who was going to run the zoo," said Dr. David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoological Park. The zoo's fund-raising arm, the North Carolina Zoological Society, is responsible for administering the funds.

Dr. Jones explained that, for the past several months, there has been a debate between city officials and Kabul University about who's in charge of the zoo. The university's zoologic department founded Kabul Zoo more than 30 years ago, but after the Soviets fled Afghanistan in 1989, the city began overseeing zoo operations. Relief teams dispatched to the zoo following this latest conflict found that no one seemed to be responsible for the zoo.

So far, donations have paid for sending teams and basic necessities to the zoo, such as for digging a well and getting the electricity turned on. The zoologic society, along with the Mayhew Animal Home in London, has been paying most of the zoo's bills.

But the society wants to know for certain that funds will be used properly before releasing any more. "We worried we'd spend several thousand dollars with little to show for it," Dr. Jones explained.

There are signs of progress within the nascent Afghan bureaucracy, however. City officials have asked Hamid Karzai, chairman of the country's interim government, that they retain control of Kabul Zoo, a request Karzai has granted. A team from London that traveled to Kabul in December is working with deputy mayor's office and city planners to get a long-term plan for the zoo in place.

Major repairs and reconstruction will have to wait until the spring. In the meantime, the team will see that zoo staff are doing their jobs and that the zoo animals have adequate heating and bedding, as well as toys to stimulate them. They will make sure that the exhibits are weatherproofed and that barriers are in place to keep visitors away from the animals.

There are hopes to eventually hire an education officer or two, preferably women, who could teach zoo visitors about animal welfare. The officers would also be responsible for keeping the public from abusing the animals, as is often the case. Women were severely repressed under Taliban rule. They were forbidden from public education and having a career. The job with the zoo would be one way of breaking through these social boundaries.

Veterinary care in Kabul is scarce. There are rumors of a native veterinarian living in the city, but no one has been able to locate him. Veterinarians with German troops stationed in Kabul have been treating a black bear with a disfigured nose, probably the result of a beating.

Dr. Jones explained that the projects this spring will focus on improving what's already there, not building a completely new zoo. "They're rather hoping that we're going to arrive with millions of dollars and completely rebuild the place, and we're not going to do that," he said.

The zoologic society has received some criticism from the British press for not rebuilding Kabul Zoo. The society has indeed been careful with the money, Dr. Jones said, but only because there is such a need for supervision in Afghanistan's chaotic environment. The funds could easily be mismanaged or disappear.

Being the primary underwriter of Kabul Zoo's restoration is a thankless job, according to Dr. Jones.

"There have been times in the last three months where I think to myself, 'Why the hell did I get involved with this thing?'" he admitted. The irony is that, had the zoologic society collected what they originally thought—between $10,000 and $30,000—the funds would have been spent by now. But their success has compounded their responsibilities and problems.

Dr. Jones is quick to add that he doesn't regret the task. He has worked for three decades on similar projects in the Middle East, India, and Africa, where trouble with authority and accountability are endemic. "I'm not surprised there's been a bit of a battle (over Kabul Zoo)," he said. "Obviously it would've been nice if we could have got on with more work during this past spring and summer.

"But my judgment was that if we had moved ahead without any clear lines of authority there, that it would have been extremely difficult to have gotten the work done, anyway. My concern is we could have spent $200,000 and basically seen nothing for it."

As for the domestic animal fund, the zoologic society has used it in support of rabies vaccinations and four animal clinics overseen by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. The society has an agreement with the WSPA and Brooke Hospital for Animals in Pakistan to open mobile large animal clinics in Jalalabad in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

In addition, the funds have been used to rebuild the veterinary school's field clinic that was completed last year. Located outside Kabul, the clinic is the primary resource for clinical training. Years of tribal warring had nearly destroyed it.

Most Afghan veterinary students—several hundred, by Dr. Jones' estimate—specialize in food animal agriculture medicine. They're well trained in theory, but, because of a lack of resources, have little clinical experience. The School of Veterinary Medicine at Kabul University was once exemplary but has fallen into disrepair the past few years. The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps has been helping to rebuild the veterinary school while also resupplying it with textbooks and microscopes.

If the veterinary education system in Afghanistan could be improved, Dr. Jones reasons, the health and welfare of the country's animals would benefit substantially. Although the zoologic society is no longer seeking funds for the zoo, earmarked donations to restock the field clinic are appreciated. "Now we've finished it, obviously we need to try to keep the thing operational," he said.

Designated donations for the clinic can be sent to the North Carolina Zoological Society, 4403 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro, NC 27203.