Anyone who has been brave enough to listen to me for the past few months knows that I have written a novel called “The Elephant Gate.” The novel, told from the viewpoint of the historically based elephant, Siam, is set in Berlin during the Second World War and graphically depicts the fate of zoo animals under wartime conditions. I first read about Siam in the non-fiction book “The Last Battle” (Simon and Schuster, 1966) and was deeply moved by the plight of these animals. One of the questions I raised in my own book is whether or not animals belong in zoos at all. Although I am inclined to reply negatively to this question, that is not really my point here; instead, I became curious about zoo animals and how they have been affected by war over the years, and my research revealed some shocking facts. Not only have zoos been bombed since man began waging war, but it continues to this day, a fact rarely reported by the media. A few examples:
•When the German Luftwaffe bombed Warsaw in September 1939, the zoo there was made a target. “The parrots,” wrote a witness, “their wings on fire, spun themselves upwards only to fall staggering and dying to the ground.” Likewise, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Rotterdam zoo in May of 1940 and the Belgrade zoo in 1941. (In fact, the Belgrade zoo had the odious distinction of being bombed a second time, in 1944 by Allied forces.)
Bombs, however, are not the only killers of zoo animals in wartime. Often, fearing that ferocious animals would be unleashed upon their city’s populace in the midst of a bombing raid, zoo directors decided to euthanize the animals as happened in London at its zoo in 1940, and Berlin in 1945:
•“Heck (the Berlin zoo director) rifle in hand, made his way to the monkey cages. The baboon, an old friend, was sitting hunched by the bars of the cage. Heck raised the rifle and put the muzzle close to the animal’s head. The baboon gently pushed it aside. Heck, appalled, again raised the rifle. Again the baboon pushed the muzzle to one side. Heck, sickened and shaken, tried once more. The baboon looked at him dumbly. Then Heck pulled the trigger.” (“The Last Battle” by Cornelius Ryan, Simon and Schuster, 1966.) Of the original 3,175 animals at the Berlin zoo before the war, only 91 survived.
•In Tokyo, the zoo’s animals were poisoned in an effort to prevent escapes during Allied bombing raids. The elephants, however, were too smart to eat the poisoned food given to them by their handlers and they slowly starved to death. (“Faithful Elephants” by Yukio Tsuchiya, Houghton-Mifflin, 1951.)
•More recently, in 1992, the zoo in Sarajevo met a similar fate to that of its predecessors, this time at the hands of Serbian forces. The last animal to survive the siege, a bear, finally succumbed to starvation. “We brought her an apple but she was too weak to eat even that,” wrote a zoo worker. Most of the zoo’s other animals resorted to cannibalism, eating their mates, before eventually succumbing to hunger themselves.
•During the 2008-2009 war in Gaza, the animals in that zoo were starved, blown to bits by airstrikes and those who survived the shells were shot in their cages by Israeli forces “to end their suffering.” Of that zoo’s 400 animals only 10 survived the war.
•In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad zoo lost nearly all of its 600 animals to the war and to starvation. In the end only 12 of its animals survived the end of hostilities. Zoos in Kabul and Kuwait City have suffered the same indignities, stories not shown on the ten o’clock news.
So, why am I throwing all of this depressing news your way? Because I believe that we can change what is continuing to happen to zoo animals caught in war zones. I intend to donate a portion of the sales of my book to this cause but, because the road from inspiration to publication is a long, tedious process, I decided not to wait. With your help and enough signatures, I intend to appeal to the International Community in an effort to change the rules of warfare where zoo animals are concerned. This can be accomplished fairly easily by adding a simple extension to the Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949). Or, more plausibly, by adding zoos to the list of Cultural Property, as covered under the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954).
Simply put, by allowing zoos to be evacuated and its occupants moved to safe zones prior to armed conflict, we will eradicate the problem of animals being killed by bombs and bullets. Under the proposed guidelines, those parties who ignore these rules, whether through failure to allow evacuations or by attacking the zoos, would be held liable for war crimes.
The Geneva Convention already protects the rights of humans. Please help me change the way we treat zoo animals in times of war. As long as we continue to confine wild animals to zoos and as long as mankind insists upon waging its wars, this is the right thing to do. Please sign your name, along with your e-mail address and forward this to as many friends and family as possible.
Thanks for your help.