Libya’s Tripoli Zoo: Fighting to Save Animals in a War Zone

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Giulio Petrocco / AP

Hippopotamuses in their enclosure at the zoo in Tripoli, Libya on Sept. 1.

Although rebels have taken hold of the Libyan capital, because they continue the important task of searching for fugitive leader Muammar Gaddafi, little has been done to alleviate the stresses zookeepers at the Tripoli Zoo are facing in caring for hungry and thirsty animals.

At least two of the zoo’s 600 animals have died from living in a combat zone. The zoo, located in the former Gaddafi stronghold Abu Salim, where heavy fighting took place before rebels took hold of Tripoli, is also dealing with significant food and water shortages.

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Ibrahim Basha, who has been the head keeper for 24 years, says that things have never been easy for the zoo. During Gaddafi’s reign, he told the Associated Press, the government frequently fail to give the zoo its monthly allotment of funding. For that reason, Basha says, the zoo owes the company that provides the animals’ food more than $1.5 million. The animals are eating on credit.

“The government didn’t care about human lives,” Abdel-Fattah Husni, the zoo director says. “Do you really think they cared about how the animals were?”

The one exception to that rule was that Gaddafi’s son Al-Saadi actually owned nine of the zoo’s 19 lions and would frequently pay them visits when they were cubs. But just over a week ago, those visits, of course, stopped. And with fewer zoo employees showing up for work amid a war — only 15 of the zoo’s 100 employees have been reporting — the animals are losing out on the proper care and attention they require.

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Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero or on Tumblr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.