Federal forces retook the Eastern area of Mosul last month from ISIS after more than two years of tyrannical rule by the jihadist group and weeks of bitter combat.
After ISIS was driven out a vet and volunteers from Four Paws were finally able to visit the zoo from hell. What the found shocked them, all the animals were killed by shelling, starved to death or ate each other.
When the group search every square meter of the Mosul zoo, only Simba the lion and Lula the bear remained as the only two survivors, in this war torn area of Iraq.
Until Amir Khalil, a kind of 'roving war zone veterinarian,' and his team of volunteers from the Four Paws animal welfare charity visited on Tuesday, nobody had entered the cages in weeks, what they found was almost inconceivable.
Covered in dirt and excrement, the pair paced up and down their cramped cages. The stench of putrefying animal carcasses filled the air in this eastern neighborhood of the war-torn Iraqi city.
"It's very dirty, there is rubble. It is, I believe, inhuman to leave the king of the jungle, or the king of the animals, to be in this place," Khalil told AFP.
A surgical mask covering his face and mouth in a vain attempt at warding off the putrid smell , Khalil loaded sedative darts into a long blowgun and aimed it at Simba's side.
The sting drew a huge roar from the lion that briefly covered the distant explosions of artillery and air strikes targeting ISIS on the other bank of the Tigris River. After a few minutes Simba relaxed and fell into a deep sleep.
The doctor and his aides lifted the sedated lion out of its cage and laid it on a plastic sheet for an examination.
"During the war, there was no food, nobody could reach them. So I feel very emotional to see them. It's heartbreaking," said Hakam Anas al-Zara, a 27-year-old Mosul resident volunteering with Four Paws.
Khalil inspected Simba as a group of giggling children and three intrigued soldiers looked on. Nobody flinched when a large explosion sent blast waves across the neighborhood and silenced the birds.
It takes more to unsettle this 52-year-old Egyptian-Austrian who has been plying his trade in conflict zones for years to rescue neglected animals in abandoned zoos and elsewhere.
"These animals were kept in captivity because of us. And they don't have the luxury to escape. And they deserve that somebody cares for them," he said.
While Simba wasn't in terrible shape for what the lion had been through, for Lula the bear the diagnosis was bad: "We see that the bear has diarrhea due to nutritional problems, teeth problems, nose excretions."
Four Paws plans to provide food and medication to the animals for a month to give the zoo owner some time to find the funds.
Paying to visit a zoo is hardly going to be a priority for residents rebuilding their homes and picking up their lives after jihadist rule. And on the west side of Mosul, the battle to drive out ISIS has not even started yet.
Abu Omar's male bear is still there, on the other side of the river, and Lula has not seen her partner since the jihadists took over the city in June 2014. "God willing, they will soon be reunited," he said.
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