The Baghdad Zoo offers a rare opportunity for recreation and tourism in war-torn Iraq. The Zoo currently employs 14 full-time staff veterinarians; however, ongoing security issues, insufficient medical and equipment resources, and lack of continuing education pose significant challenges for animal care. A collaborative relationship was forged between the North Carolina State University (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina Zoo, the United States Army, and U.S Department of State to assist courageous and dedicated Iraqi zoo veterinarians.
The Baghdad Zoo Director, also a veterinarian, spends about half his day with animal-related activities and the other half with administrative responsibilities. He has been at the Zoo for 18 years, graduated from Baghdad University in 1979, and holds an advanced degree in parasitology. The other veterinarians spend almost all of their time with animal-related activities, such as overseeing the control and treatment of animals, lab operations, and the maintenance of enclosures. Some of the veterinarians are on the zoo staff, and the rest are considered daily hires. Animal husbandry staff is limited to two keepers with 28 hired on a daily basis, but the veterinarians do most of the nursing care and animal restraint.
The most significant obstacle to the improvement of animal care is the lack of accessible veterinary continuing education. Although there are now nine colleges of veterinary medicine in Iraq with widely variable capabilities, zoological medicine is not incorporated into the curricula, and students are not empowered to explore and create new professional niches outside of livestock medicine. Similarly, fish medicine is not highlighted in Iraqi veterinary schools where many of the graduates are unemployed or underemployed, yet aquaculture has been practiced in Iraq for 2,000 years and is receiving renewed interest and emphasis. An initial onsite training mission and needs assessment was conducted on October 3, 2007, at the Baghdad Zoo. Included in the training was familiarization on diagnostic ultrasound and other laboratory equipment, hands-on instruction on fish diagnostics and therapeutics, health and husbandry assessment of the equine stables and aquarium, dietary recommendations, and examination of the pair of arthritic cheetahs that once belonged to Uday and Qusay Hussein.
We successfully linked the Baghdad Zoo veterinarians with the Advanced Topics in Zoological Medicine course at NCSU. This is a 3-year-long course designed for graduate veterinarians preparing for careers in zoological medicine. The students taking the class onsite at NCSU number about 20 and include residents, graduate students, and a large number of veterinary students in the first 3 years of their curriculum. These are primarily zoological medicine focus DVM students who can take the course as an elective. The course has linked with remote sites for several years and other simultaneous links include the North Carolina Zoo, Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST), the South Carolina Aquarium, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The connection to Baghdad was implemented using open-source software, XMeeting that follows an H323 protocol. The North Carolina Zoological Society donated and sent two iMacs to the Baghdad Zoo to allow them to implement the software, and the Army was involved in stabilizing the internet connection. Incompatible bandwidths and early software issues caused initial delays, but this was corrected by reducing the video feed rate to lower bandwidth requirements at the Baghdad Zoo while still sending and receiving a good quality picture. As of March 2008, there was still an echo cancelation problem on the Baghdad side which was handled by muting their sound and transmitting questions and comments via instant messenger. This worked well because the Iraqi veterinarians are more proficient in reading and written English skills than their speaking and comprehension skills, and it also aided us in trouble shooting. Written translation engines are being incorporated into the instant messenger system.
The Baghdad Zoo faces a brighter horizon as opportunities for continuing education are afforded to the veterinarians and staff, along with improved equipment, supplies, and security. The Zoo Director attended the Iraqi National Animal Health Program Workshop in Damascus for a week in January, 2008, also speaking on the Zoo’s perspective on control of the five diseases of interest (highly pathogenic avian influenza, foot and mouth disease, brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, and echinococcosis). As of April, 2008, other planned international collaborative activities included one week of intensive training at Chester Zoo and efforts to transfer two tigers from a sanctuary in the United States to the Baghdad Zoo. The expanding and diverse animal collection inventory now includes over 800 mammals and birds. The number of visitors has been unprecedented recently, with attendance in the hundreds of thousands over the Eid holiday in October, 2007 - more evidence that the surge is working.
The authors thank Dr. Alan Nuradin (Multinational Corps - Iraq) and MAJ Jessica McCoy (U.S. Veterinary Corps) for their coordination and participation with the onsite training and assessment, Linda Dunn (IT specialist at the CMAST, Morehead City, NC) for software assistance, CPT Amy Cronin and CPT Jason Felix (U.S. Army) and their soldiers for their support missions to the Baghdad Zoo, and most importantly, the 14 tireless veterinarians and their support staff at the Baghdad Zoo. The authors also acknowledge the critical pioneering efforts of Mr. Lawrence Anthony (Thula Thula Game Reserve and Earth Organization, author of “Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo” and responsible for passage of “Wildlife in War Zones: United Nations Resolution”) and MAJ William Sumner (U.S. Army) on behalf of the Baghdad Zoo during and immediately following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Missions were jointly funded and staffed by the United States Army and the Department of State.