Giulio Petrocco  /  AP
A young girl stares at flamingos at the zoo in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. Because of the city's water shortage, the zoo's skeleton staff can only clean the animals' cages every four or five days.
updated 9/1/2011 3:16:14 PM ET 2011-09-01T19:16:14

The body of a gazelle lies near an empty feeding bin, flies swarming around the corpse. A male lion growls angrily, leaping toward the front of his cage when a rare visitor approaches the bars.

This is life in the Tripoli Zoo, which has found itself a casualty of the war to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

Once one of the city's best-loved family destinations, today it is 110 dusty acres of listless animals and overgrown, sunburned grass. Empty bullet casings are scattered everywhere. A patch of black grass near the monkey cage shows where a rocket-propelled grenade hit. A turtle cage is cracked by gunfire, garbage is piled everywhere and three forlorn hippopotamuses hang their heads in a filthy pit, standing next to a shallow pool of fetid water. Because of the city's water shortage, the zoo's skeleton staff can only clean the animals' cages every four or five days.

At least two of the nearly 600 animals at the zoo died from the stress of living in a combat zone, zookeepers say, and many more are suffering from shortages of food and water.

The zoo is in the former Gadhafi stronghold of Abu Salim, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during the battles for Tripoli, and was the last neighborhood to come under rebel control.

"The animals were nervous at the beginning of the fighting because of the shooting and the loud sounds," said Ibrahim Basha, the zoo's head keeper for 24 years.

But if things are awful now at the zoo, life was never easy.

Difficulties behind bars
During the Gadhafi era, corruption and administrative chaos made it difficult to simply keep the animals fed, said the director, Abdel-Fattah Husni.

The zoo often wouldn't get its monthly budget allotments, he said, and it has racked up nearly $1.5 million in debts to the company that provides the animals' food. At this point, the company is feeding the animals on credit.

If the supplier stopped providing food for just a couple days, he said, the zoo would be "finished."

"The government didn't care about human lives. Do you really think they cared about how the animals were?" Husni said.

The exception was a family of lions who received daily visits from the inner circle of the Gadhafi regime.

Giulio Petrocco  /  AP
Hippopotamuses are seen in their enclosure at the zoo in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday. Once one of the city's best-loved family destinations, today it is 110 dusty acres of listless animals and overgrown, sun-burned grass.

Al-Saadi Gadhafi, one of the sons of the longtime dictator, owned nine of the 19 lions in the zoo. He would go into the cages to play with them when they were cubs. And until just over a week ago, with rebels pressing hard on the capital, al-Saadi spent time with a one-year-old lion named Hilal, along with his parents and two sisters.

During a visit Thursday, Hilal closed his eyes in pleasure when Husni reached through the bars to softly pet his head.

Al-Saadi Gadhafi "would come to visit the lions even in the middle of the war, until he fled," said Husni, who has been the zoo's director for 17 years, and who lives on the grounds with his family.

These days, the lions spend most of their time lying listless inside their dirty cage. A zookeeper feeds them by flinging raw chickens into the cage, where they land with a thump — and the hungry lions jump to grab their share. Only 15 of the zoo's 100 employees have been showing up for work in recent days.

Things were supposed to be far better this year. Thursday marked the 42nd anniversary of the 1969 military coup that brought Gadhafi to power, and the zoo was supposed to be renovated as part of the celebration. It had been under construction for two years, but Husni said that stopped when the Korean contractors working on it disappeared after anti-government protests erupted in mid-February.

Husni said he has repeatedly reached out to the rebels, asking for security to ensure there is no looting. But the rebels are busy, still searching for Gadhafi and his sons — including al-Saadi.

Now, Husni hopes a rebel leader emerges who is an animal lover, saying "it would be a tragedy if the zoo just ends in this shape."

No matter what, Husni and Basha are not going anywhere.

"These animals are my family now. I can't leave them," Basha said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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