Worst behaved at the Kabul Zoo - the humans
China is halting further animal donations to the zoo after a bear and a deer died.
Inside a cage, a pair of mangy wolves rest on a bed of straw. Outside the cage, an Afghan amputee tries to stir up the action a bit, tossing stones at the animals. A crowd of Afghans gathers, and the amputee tries poking his crutch through the chain-link fence to see if one of the animals takes a bite.
A wolf sniffs the crutch and walks back to a cool spot in the straw. The crowd moves off to the next cage.
Afghanistan is a wounded country, after two decades of war, so it shouldn't come as any great surprise that the Kabul Zoo is wounded too. In fact, the only surprise should be that Kabul has a zoo at all.
Aziz Gul Saqib, the zoo director, walks around the zoo that he has managed for three months and shakes his head.
"The big problem with our country is that no one knows what to do with animals. The war has damaged their minds," he says, passing by an open pen for macaques, surrounded by a moat of filthy water filled with trash. "They stand here and throw stones, shoes, and even their hats at the animals. They fight with the animals, they don't come to just see the animals."
Generally speaking, the Kabul Zoo manages to struggle along quietly, attracting hundreds of visitors on weekdays and up to 5,000 on an average weekend. It's one of the few sources of entertainment, and a minor miracle in a country with many problems - an ongoing insurgency, opium trafficking, corruption, high infant mortality, lack of clean drinking water, just to mention a few.
But the Kabul Zoo came into the headlines recently when one of the zoo's primary donor of animals - the Chinese government - recently announced concerns about the safety of the animals it has already donated to Afghanistan. In the past year, one male bear and one deer have died, apparently from diseases and improper nutrition. Chinese authorities say they will not donate any more animals to Kabul until conditions improve.
Most of the zoo's 100 or so animals are native to Afghanistan. Foreign animal donations add some welcome diversity.
The death of the male bear has been a particular problem, says Dr. Saqib. Recently, the departed male's mate, Cece, went on a rampage, breaking out of her cage and killing a pig in a nearby open pen. Somehow zookeepers managed to coax her back in her pen without further incident. This was fortunate: The zoo has no tranquilizer guns to control larger animals.
Indeed, the zoo grounds, which span approximately two city blocks, don't even have a proper perimeter to keep out wandering herds of sheep and goats.
Saqib ticks off his list of things to do. He wants to:
• Refurbish the snake house and add large aquariums full of tropical fish.
• Reconstruct the elephant pen and replace the elephant that was killed by mujahideen.
• Rebuild the perimeter wall.
• And get another male bear for Cece before she breaks out again.
But the zoo has few funds for such projects. The admission fee is little more than a dime. Donations help. Last year, the North Carolina Zoo raised $500,000.
Saqib walks up to a low wall and peers down at an open pen where two Afghan bears are lounging in the sun. One big honey-colored bear is chewing on a piece of cardboard tossed into the pen by a visitor.
"Please see the water in the moat," Saqib says. "We change this water every two days, but people throw trash into the pen."
Saqib and other zookeepers have tried putting up signs to discourage bad behavior by zoo visitors, largely to no avail. One reads: "Dear citizens: The animals are creatures of God. While watching them, please avoid annoying or bothering them."
Just a few feet away, a crowd has gathered as an Afghan dangles a bag of peanuts in front of the waiting paw of a very chubby macaque. The monkey reaches, and the man pulls the bag back, but not fast enough. The monkey saunters away with his peanuts. Another monkey in the cage chews on a cigarette stub.
Farther on, a man has gathered his family around a cage of owls. To show that the birds are actually alive, he takes off his hat and thrashes it in the face of a nearby owl. The bird blinks and looks away.
"We have many problems," Saqib says, "but I'm a young person. I will try my best to make this place like the zoos of the world."