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The N.C. Zoo Society will send 100 percent of your donation to Afghanistan to benefit the animals in the Kabul Zoo.
Kabul's desperate little zoo runs only on faith

MORT ROSENBLUM, AP Special Correspondent
Wednesday, November 21, 2001
2001 Associated Press

(11-19) 23:43 PST KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Marjan the one-eyed lion gets
his daily 25 pounds of flesh thanks to a trusting butcher. The caged rabbits
eat cheap. All in all, Kabul's desperate little zoo is a wreck running on
hope. It is the perfect metaphor for Afghanistan's plight. "We cannot let
these animals die," said zoo director Sheragha Omar, a gentle man of short
stature with a trim gray beard. "It is our Pashtun honor. We do not count up
the cost. Our duty is to save them."

Omar's seven children are at the edge of hunger. He has not been paid his $20
monthly wage since July yet he still finds a little cash to help out the
destitute 11 people who work for him. Warring factions long ago trashed the
place, along with most of the city around it. Shells smashed the main
building, shattering its fine old aquarium. Half the cage bars are twisted,
with doors hanging open.

The Afghan bear is a nervous wreck. There is no money to treat the large open
sore on its nose, which Omar says is the result of mindless Taliban visitors
smacking him with sticks. Marjan sits listless and lonely in the lion pit,
hardly raising an eyebrow when Omar drops in for a visit. "He is as old as I
am," Omar laughs. Close enough. He is 48, and Marjan is 45. "The poor beast
has no mate. He is aging fast. Mostly, he is traumatized from his brush with
During the roaring '90s, after the Russians left, an Afghan guerrilla showing
off for his friends jumped over the guard rail into the den and teased the
lion. Marjan ate him. The next day, the guerrilla's brother applied the
Afghans' strict code of revenge. He tossed a hand grenade at the lion.
Marjan, expecting food, pounced on it. The blast put out his eye and nearly
killed him.

On another black day, a different Afghan guerrilla amused himself by firing a
rocket-propelled grenade at the elephant. These days, the zoo's 37 species of
animals are reduced to 19. They include some curious choices, including one
unlabeled feline that looks like an ill-tempered house cat. "We have hope,"
Omar said. "We used to get maybe 100 people a day, and now there are 200.
People are no longer afraid to come out. We even have women now who open
their burqa masks for a better look." But his accounts tell a less optimistic
story. The zoo costs $6,000 a month to operate, and gate receipts come to
$300. The hard-pressed city of Kabul, with hungry people in its streets, has
other priorities. Omar is doubtful that the chaotic northern alliance
administration now governing Kabul will get around to funding the zoo.
Soldiers don't even pay the nickel entry fee when they visit. Promises from
abroad buoy up his hopes. The Kenyan government said it would provide exotic
animals in 10 years if the zoo, and Afghanistan, lasted that long. Zoo
associations elsewhere offered some help. Omar considers it a miracle that
the zoo survived the Taliban. At one point, he said, a budget crunch produced
an order to reduce the zoo's staff from 19 to three. "I explained how that
was impossible," he said, "we have managed to keep enough people." And then
the Taliban's minister of justice appeared one day and demanded to know which
law of Islam sanctioned the keeping of animals. Unless Omar could cite the
proper text, the animals would be set free. When the city could provide no
answer, Omar went to the University of Kabul's zoology department. They had
no opinion. Finally, the theology department certified that the Prophet
Mohammed kept house pets. But the Taliban made Omar fire his vet, so now he
has to rely on the generosity of teachers and students at the university's
school of agriculture. Freezing weather is approaching and there is no money
for winterizing the cages, but the small staff does its best. When the
population of songbirds began suffering from the cold at night, zoo keepers
put them in cages inside their own cramped sleeping quarters. "No one gets
any sleep for all the chirping," Omar said. Because he did not trust the
Taliban, he had the foresight to put aside a small reserve in case the money
ran out. That is fast evaporating. The biggest item is Marjan's lunch tab
which approaches $14 a day, more than many Kabulis earn in a month. "The
butcher says he trusts us to make good when we can." Now, like Kabul and all
of Afghanistan, Omar figures the future is in the hands of Allah. "We are
running on faith now," he said. "In the end, things will work out. God

November 29, 2001 Press Release