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Afghanistan: World Society Helps Abused, Diseased Animals

If it weren't for the charred facades of the city's destroyed buildings, the image of sheep grazing in the streets of Kabul would seem idyllic. Yet, many of the animals in the Afghan capital are sick, lame, or carrying parasites and diseases. John Walsh of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is in Kabul to treat the livestock of the Afghan people and to save what remains of the wretched Kabul Zoo.

Kabul, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Kabul Zoo is the last place for an animal lover.

The only wild creatures still alive are a one-eyed lion called Mazhan, which has a broken jaw and missing teeth; a few abused monkeys; two wolves; two wildcats; some birds; and an Asiatic black bear with a severely injured nose. The bear spends its days rocking back and forth in its cage and rubbing its face against the bars.

John Walsh of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is now in Kabul in an attempt to help the country's abused and diseased animals.

Walsh says it's obvious the bear is suffering from stress related to the U.S.-led bombing campaign. Walsh says he is contacting doctors around the world to see if it's possible to surgically repair the bear's nose.

As for Mazhan, because of his missing teeth, the lion has to be fed ground meat. According to the director of the Kabul Zoo, Sheragha Omar, Mazhan has survived many ordeals: "One of our citizens threw a grenade into the lion's cage, hurting his jaw and eyes."

Why would someone do such a thing? Omar explains: "Because the brother of that man had jumped into the cage and was killed by the lion. Then, after the burial, his brother was angry, so he took revenge on the lion by throwing a grenade."

There hasn't been any electricity or running water at the Kabul Zoo since the Taliban came to power in 1996. The 12 people who work at the zoo today have been paid by the WSPA since the Taliban fled the city late last year.

"We tried to negotiate with the Taliban, saying, 'We continue to help the animals of the zoo. We'll give you money.' They said, 'We can't guarantee the money will be used for the zoo,' so we wouldn't do it."

The Taliban also tried to close the zoo, arguing that the Koran does not mention keeping animals in cages. Omar says he contacted a theologian who tried to document that the Prophet Mohammad himself kept pets. Half-convinced, the Taliban allowed the zoo to stay open but withdrew any funding.

In the last month, according to the WSPA, Western zoos have raised almost $400,000 for the reconstruction of the Kabul Zoo. The WSPA says it will contribute a similar amount in veterinary supplies, but that such money is only a start.

The zoo is not the country's only animal problem.

Peasants in Afghanistan have lost many of their sheep and goats during the last 10 years due to war, lack of proper vaccines, and three successive years of drought. Walsh says: "There are no vaccines, so you have a lot of livestock lost, just because they are not vaccinating the animals. Secondly, they had a drought for three years. That's become part of the problem. And because there's no medication, they have internal parasites. So with the little food they get, they're feeding the parasites and starving themselves."

Across the country, Walsh says, animals are threatened by rabies because of an increase in the number of stray dogs. The WSPA says it advocates mass euthanasia for these animals. Referring to a similar rabid dog problem in big cities in Romania, Walsh had this to say: "We support the government of Romania that [the dogs] should be killed, but humanely. The animal rights people are critical of us because we support setting up effective dog control, and you've got to start somewhere with a population number that you can manage. The population has been out of control in Romania."

But Afghanistan is not Romania, and the interim government in Kabul is likely to have more urgent priorities than setting up dog shelters or organizing for their humane extermination.

The WSPA says it is looking now at setting up veterinary facilities across the country. Walsh says the first such facility will open in Kabul next week.