AMMAN JORDAN – I haven’t seen many miracles in my decades of travel around the globe, particularly not in the strife-torn Mideast.
But last week I participated in a real miracle in Jordan as the splendid Four Paws International group staged a daring rescue of 13 wild animals trapped in the wartime hellhole of Aleppo, Syria. It appeared to be a mission impossible.
Syria has been torn apart for the past six years by a bloody civil war that has killed over 400,000 people and reduced many parts of this beautiful country to ruins. Half the population has become refugees. The ancient northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, was laid waste.
Just outside Aleppo lies a wrecked 40-acre amusement park cum zoo that once held hundreds of imprisoned wild animals to entertain children. The animals were abandoned in their cages in the midst of constant gunfire and shelling. Many were killed; the rest were left to starve to death or die of thirst. Some starving Syrians shared their meager rations with the animals.
No one else cared about these abandoned creatures that included five lions, two tigers, two Asian black bears, two hyenas and two Husky dogs.
But the Vienna-based Four Paws Charity did, and so did I. Four Paws had rescued a majestic lion named Simba and a charming honey-colored bear named Lula from Iraq’s abandoned Mosul zoo. Both had been starving. I agreed to sponsor much of the rescue operation in Aleppo.
I spent a morning in the New Hope Refuge outside Amman, Jordan, presided over by Jordan’s Princess Alia, the king’s sister. Over lunch, she showed remarkable compassion and understanding for wild animals.
Previously, Four Paws, led by its veterinarian, Dr. Amir Khalil, had rescued numerous starving or sick animals from the ghastly zoo in Gaza, Palestine.
Last week, a security team engaged by Four Paws International finally entered war-ravaged Aleppo which is besieged by feuding jihadist bands supported by competing outside powers that include al-Qaida and even Israel. Throw in Kurds, Turks, the Syrian government, Iranians, Hezbollah and the US for a total madhouse – and a very dangerous one.
Risking their lives, the security team managed to get around the jihadists and then into the Aleppo zoo. Over two trips, the thirteen remaining animals were coaxed into cages, then lifted onto flatbed trucks. Then the convoy headed for the Turkish border. This was the second attempt. A previous one had been held at the border, then forced to turn back.
The daring rescue team had to negotiate with the bands of trigger-happy jihadists surrounding them. A team of well-armed ‘security consultants’ came in to guard the convoy escaping from Aleppo. There was talk that the Israeli army might come to aid the animals, or a Turkish-backed militia. In any event, the little mercy convoy finally got to the Turkish border under the cover of darkness.
But the gate leading into Turkey was locked. Four Paws, with the help of Turkish volunteers, managed to talk the guards into opening it – yet another small miracle.
The animals were then driven for over 24 hours to an animal sanctuary near Bursa, south of Istanbul. There, one of the tigers, an imposing male that I named Sultan, went into cardiac arrest. Another wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Frank Goeritz, got into his cage and managed to bring him back to life, warning his aides ‘leave the gate open in case he wakes up.’ Sultan was saved.
Wheels had to be cut off the cages to fit them into a commercial aircraft. Finding the right tool to do this in the middle of the night in Istanbul was another challenge.
After long delays, the mercy flight finally got to Amman where we met them at 5:30 am. Four Paws director Heli Dungler was waiting with us. Thanks to the patronage of Princess Alia we got the animals through border controls and then onto flat-bed trucks for a two hour journey north to the al-Ma’wa animal refuge near the ancient Roman city of Jerash. Drivers on the road could not believe their eyes as our convoy of big predators rolled by.
After a labor of Hercules, the heavy cages were unloaded from the trucks and the 13 new residents were gently introduced into their new enclosures. The animals were of course confused, exhausted and testy, but we were thrilled that our wards were finally safe in their new homes.
We humans were also exhausted, but elated. I had slept no more than a few hours for days and was groggy from jet lag and fatigue. But Four Paws had achieved the impossible and shone a beacon of humanity into the boiling darkness of Syria’s civil war.
As a final sign of good karma, lioness Dana gave birth to a feisty little girl who begins her life in a far better place.