BAGHDAD – Families stroll the park's sidewalks and picnic in the shade as laughing children clamor to see the main attraction — lions once owned by Saddam Hussein's son, Odai.
Damaged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the Baghdad Zoo has made a startling comeback, and thousands of Iraqis are flocking here to escape the city's grungy streets.
The zoo, located in the sprawling Zawra Park in the heart of Baghdad just outside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, has been held up as an example of American reconstruction efforts. The military brought in new animals, rebuilt damaged exhibits and worked with international zoos and organizations to train the Iraqi zookeepers.
Still, the effects of war are all too plain. Because transporting refrigerated meat is too difficult, donkeys are raised in a fenced-off area. They are euthanized and fed to the lions. And although the zoo is far more serene than other parts of the capital, U.S. military helicopters frequently buzz overhead.
The zoo's revival coincides with a reduction in violence across the capital. As a result, Iraqis are increasingly going outside for their leisure time. And in recent months an average of 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqis visit the zoo each week, paying about 20 cents each for admission, said Adel Salman Mousa, who has been the zoo's director for the past 18 years.
On a recent sunny spring afternoon, Iraqi families packed the zoo. Young couples sat side-by-side on park benches, teenagers rowed small boats in the zoo's pond and families took pictures with their cell phone cameras of the bears and other animals behind green cage bars.
Ahmed Noori, a Baghdad dentist who came here with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, said the zoo is a getaway for Iraqis who live under the constant threat of bombings and shootings.
"The Iraqi people are tired and need more places to relax like the zoo," he said. "This is one of the only well-protected areas that is safe."
That was not the case five years ago. After the 2003 invasion, the zoo was in tatters.
Iraqi fighters had booted the zookeepers from the park and set up defensive positions among the cages. Chaos ensued.
Looters stole or turned loose nearly every animal. Some animals lay dead in their cages, others roamed freely. Three Iraqis were found dead, apparently mauled by a bear. When U.S. soldiers arrived, they were forced to shoot a few lions.
Three months after the Americans captured Baghdad, the damaged zoo officially reopened. But violence soon raged in the capital and elsewhere in Iraq, making it too dangerous for many Iraqis to visit and for organizations to repair it.
Though there was some effort in the first years of the war to fix up the zoo, the U.S. military began to give the zoo a makeover in January 2007. They brought in new animals, mostly from Turkey or other Iraqi zoos that were shut down or could not afford to keep animals any longer.
Over the past year and three months, the U.S. Army has spent more than $2.15 million on the zoo, supplying it with generators because it receives only two hours of electricity a day, building new bathrooms for visitors, cleaning up trash, repairing cages and providing medicine to its animal clinic.
The U.S. backing was a crucial supplement to the zoo's annual allotment from the city of Baghdad of about $400,000, said Mousa, the zoo's director.
"Zawra Park and the zoo are the only escape for people in Baghdad, and the improvement in security and the work of Coalition Forces has made it a haven for people," Mousa said.
Iraqi government guards provide security at the zoo and the park, both of which are overseen by the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). No weapons or vehicles are allowed in the park, and people are searched before entering.
Though the Baghdad Zoo isn't exactly San Diego, it does feature a wide range of animals: the lions, including two cubs and a few adults that once belonged to Odai, three bears, porcupines, several pelicans and ostriches, a couple of camels, peacocks, a cheetah and monkeys.
Over at the fish house there's a tank with small, yellow fish. Each fish also sports a red and black stripe sandwiching a white stripe with green stars and Arabic script — the Iraqi flag. The fish are from Thailand, where they are colored with laser technology and sold for $45 a pair.
The Army's plans for further upgrading the zoo over the next year include improving the horse stables and the lion habitat, according to Capt. Jason Felix. This summer, he said, three veterinarians at the zoo will go to England for training.