Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Inspirational leadership

BBC Radio Four's programme 'The Choice' this morning interviewed Laurence Anthony, the South African Game Reserve director who took himself to Baghdad in the wake of the US invasion force in a quest to do what he could to rescue and animals in the zoo. He recalled the loss of the entire zoo population in Kuwait when it was invaded, as also happened in Berlin when it fell in 1945, and Dresden (presumably in the dreadful firestorm, a few months earlier). No provision for animal welfare was included in the Iraq invasion plan, needless to say. Of 650 animals in the Baghdad zoo, some three dozen of the larger animals had survived barely a week without food and water, imprisoned by their cages. The zoo also suffered from stray bombs. The condition of the creatures was so pitiful that he was ready to shoot them and put them out of their misery. However, the chief animal keeper turned up and wept with gratitude that someone had come with money and veterinary first aid resources in the nick of time. Some else cared. That was enough.

Together with a handful of assistant keepers, they worked to save the remaining animals, and were completely successful. Within weeks they had set about rebuilding damaged enclosures with US military help. Volunteers started to appear, including off-duty US soldiers, fighting by day, shovelling manure by night, alongside them Republican Guard deserters, and ordinary citizens. The US military governor fortunately understood the value of rebuilding the zoo and keeping it open as an amenity for all to appreciate and benefit from, so at least in one corner of that strife torn city, a peace project was born, around caring for animals.

It's a striking story of determination and courageous leadership by one man prepared to risk himself for the stricken animals in a situation where nobody else had really considered they were anything other than expendable 'collateral damage' caused by war - like so many poor people who also end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. The interviewer pushed him on the question of justifying his action when there was also so much human suffering crying out for attention in the same conditions. He had no answer, apart from saying quite unsentimentally: "I just did what I felt I had to do."

As a game park warden his entire existence revolves around wild animal husbandry. He even admitted to hating zoos, yet he gave everything he could to rescue a zoo from destruction, for the sake of the animals there. As he spoke, I couldn't help thinking how wars, for whatever purpose they are fought, have no regard for life of any kind. The destruction they cause shows how the fates of humans, animals and the environment sustaining us all are all inextricably linked with each other.

As soon as fighting paused in Southern Iraq, Marsh Arab community members returned to areas drained of water by Saddam's ecocidal policy directed at this group of political opponents, and breached the dykes allowing water to return to where it had been the source of life and economy for an entire culture for several millennia. Much had been destroyed but in a few areas marshland is recovering and its bio-diversity slowly returning. How much the healing of the wounds of war relies upon the vision and brave leadership of a few, who are willing to set the tone for renewal even before the guns have been silenced.

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