Saving the Baghdad Zoo

By Chanel S. Weaver, 20th Support CommandJanuary 7, 2011

Saving the Baghdad Zoo
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Saving the Baghdad Zoo
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ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - William "Wes" Sumner" is a unique Soldier working in a unique command.

The Deputy Chief of Current Operations for the U.S. Army 20th Support Command Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives (CBRNE), doesn't work a typical '9 to 5 schedule,' but works in an office that operates on a non-stop 24/7 pace.

Sumner helps to maintain operations and to keep his finger on the pulse of a command that is charged with combating weapons of mass destruction and defeating all types of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats.

But few people know Sumner's story - the story of a man who not only worked to restore the Baghdad Zoo, but recently published a children's book about it. The individual stories in the memoir depict how a small group of people helped to save a large population of animals forgotten with the misfortune of being caught in the middle of a war.

Sumner (who has a master's degree in archaeology) was deployed to Baghdad in 2003, helping to recover and archive the contents of the Iraq Museum International and manage the numerous archaeological sites throughout the country. He did this for his first few months in Iraq participating in the recovery of several artifacts including the ancient Assyrian Treasure of Nimrud.

As a civil affairs officer on the Special Functions team, he routinely undertook projects that would be considered out of the ordinary. At the request of a local commander, Sumner found himself at the Baghdad Zoo, helping to save the undernourished and neglected animals that, after surviving the invasion, were now in a fight just to stay alive.

What Sumner found at the zoo was devastating.

"Hundreds of animals were missing, and the few that remained were in desperate need of care," Sumner said.

The Baghdad Zoo was once home to more than 600 animals, but after the 2003 invasion and subsequent looting, only 32 animals remained.

"The only animals that were left were the ones that could defend themselves from looters, mainly lions, tigers and the large mountain bears," Sumner said.

Before long, Sumner had organized a team of zoologists, conservationists and veterinarians to feed the animals and provide a safe living environment.

Sumner said the recovery effort was a symbol of the international cooperation that he had been told to expect in Iraq, but had not previously experienced.

"Iraqis, South Africans, Americans and Britons struggled together daily to provide basic amenities for the remaining animals," he said.

The zoo restoration effort was not without opposition, however. Sumner said people would often ask why they are helping animals instead of the Iraqi people.

"I believed we were doing both," Sumner said. "We were not only saving the animals, but we were also helping the people who worked with them. We gave them jobs, fed their families, provided medical care and forged friendships that last until this day. We also provided a space in Baghdad where families could go to avoid the worst of the ongoing violence in the city."

And despite the team's peaceful intent, they were still caught in a war zone where they had to ensure the safety of themselves and the innocent animals they were helping.

"Unexploded ordnance was scattered throughout the area, weapons were stored in cages, and looters wandered throughout the park trying to steal anything that was of value," Sumner said. "It was also not unusual to hear nearby explosions and fighting nearby while we worked to stabilize the animals."

As the team began to gain control of the situation at the Baghdad Zoo, Sumner and his team also took possession of the many palace zoos maintained by Saddam and his relatives.

During the year they were in charge of the zoo, they increased the animal population to nearly 120 and expanded their scope of operations to various areas throughout Iraq. Near the end of his tour, Sumner had accumulated 19 lions, two tigers, four mountain bears, and 16 Arabian horses from black markets, smaller zoos and other sources. He also rescued a number of other animals such as hyenas, porcupines, falcons and ostriches.

"The zoo survived the conflict and now thrives because of the commitment and courage of a group of people who fought to keep the animals alive," Sumner said.

Sumner redeployed in 2004, and shared his experiences in Iraq with several zoos and conservation organizations. After speaking on CBS Sunday Morning, he received a call from Kelly Milner Halls, a children's book author, who wanted to interview him about another topic - the rescue of 16 Arabian horses. During the interview, Sumner mentioned that he and his team recovered and cared for a number of other animals as well.

This story prompted Hall to ask Sumner to write a children's book on the topic.

Sumner said initially he was not comfortable with the idea of writing a children's book.

He said Halls, however, convinced him that kids would be interested in the story too.

"At first, I wasn't sure if a children's book was a good idea," Sumner said. "I wanted to tell a bigger story about the staff, the work, and how the people working there became such a close team. "

While he was deployed, Sumner started a program to educate Iraqi children about their country and its animals.

"What I didn't think about is that American children might be equally interested in this same subject."

After extensive collaboration, Sumner and Hall published, Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and Heroes (Harper Collins, 2010).

Sumner has been interviewed by numerous news agencies but he doesn't seek the spotlight.

"What we did in Baghdad was notable, but not unique," Sumner said. "There were many goodwill and charitable projects that occurred in the country, including donating medical supplies to hospitals, rebuilding schools and helping to support local orphanages and special needs children."

Sumner is committed to life-long learning. He earned two master's degrees, one in archaeology and another in instructional systems design. He also earned a bachelor's degree in political science. Despite these accomplishments, he is currently enrolled in a program to earn a doctorate in Biodefense.

When he is not working at the 20th Support Command (CBRNE) or continuing his education, Sumner enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also enjoys scuba diving.

Sumner said the time he spent restoring the Baghdad Zoo was one of the highlights of his Army career.

"I feel humbled to know that I was part of a mission that helped to unite people from all backgrounds in Iraq and from all over the world and save a portion of Iraq's national heritage for future generations," Sumner said.