March 24th, 2007 07:06 EST
Army Brigade Begins Work With Baghdad Zoo
"It was kind of a shock because I didn`t know they had a zoo," Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Mowery said of his initial reaction upon learning that one of his new responsibilities would be working with the staff of the Baghdad Zoo.
Mowery, the special projects noncommissioned officer for the 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, recently moved with his battalion from Forward Operating Base Falcon located in southern Baghdad to FOB Prosperity located in the International Zone.
With this move came new missions, among those overseeing an area of Baghdad known as Al-Zawra Park, which is home to the once renowned Baghdad Zoo.
The three-square block park, nestled in the heart of the city, was a surprising sight to the Parkersdurg, W. Va. native the first time he visited the area.
"It was a big shock because of how well they had maintained it throughout this whole time, and then to see the people out there and the animals that they have," said Mowery. "It was a welcome surprise."
Within the confines of the park are several walking paths, a small amusement park, horse stables and the Baghdad Zoo.
"It`s a nice place where the local nationals can go to have some relaxation time and some family time," he said.
The zoo, which was once one of the largest in the Middle East, was home to more than 600 animals at its prime. Although there are not nearly as many animals today, it is a testament to the dedication of the staff that it is still in operation.
According to the zoo`s assistant director, who helped open the zoo in 1978, the zoo only closed for about five months after the war began. During that time, staff members who lived on the grounds continued to care for the animals.
"As far as I know, they only lost one animal during that whole time," Mowery said.
The assistant director said that while attendance is still much lower than he would like to see, things are going well.
Mowery is hoping that with the 15th BSB`s assistance, the area will continue to improve and that more and more residents will take advantage of park.
The first step toward this goal is assessing the entire area, which is what Mowery set out to do March 19.
"Right now we`re just trying to get a basic layout," he explained. "Then once we find out more about the park and how many people actually come from the neighborhood around it, then we can decide exactly what we need to do."
Mowery and other 15th BSB soldiers spent the morning driving around the park, visiting the different areas and talking with the staff.
"We`re out here to get some key landmarks and plot them on the map, and talk to some of the key leaders," Mowery explained. "We need to get their information to help us help them to make sure the infrastructure is good and to see what we can do to help them to get more people to come out."
While Mowery spent much of the morning speaking with those in charge of the different areas of the park, 1st Lt. Gabrielle Caldara, the brigade`s environmental officer, collected water samples from the park.
"I`m looking at three general parameters," Caldara, who is originally from upstate New York explained. "It`s PH level, chlorine and bacteria. It`s just a general assessment and visual inspection otherwise."
Caldara said she was impressed by the overall appearance of the park and the zoo.
"It`s actually pretty good. There`s not a lot of trash. Compared to a lot of conditions we see, it`s in very good condition," she said. "There are standing water issues but that is just from their sprinkler system, which will probably evaporate, but there is some chlorine in their water, a small amount, but generally speaking it`s very well maintained considering the surroundings."
Walking through the zoo, Caldara also said that she was struck by how close she was able to get to some of the animals.
"It was much closer than our zoos," she said. "I`ve never had an experience like that."
Unlike most modern American zoos, in which animals are kept in large areas created to replicate their natural environment, the animals are kept in relatively small, caged-in enclosure.
During the walkthrough, staff members took the soldiers right up to the cages so they could get a close-up look at the animals to include lions, a bear, a camel and several species of monkeys.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the soldiers was when the assistant director took them into the cheetah`s habitat, where they were actually able to pet the two tame cats.
"The cheetahs were pretty cool," Caldara said.
Mowery said that he will continue to visit the park frequently and his next focus will be on maintaining the security inside the park.
"There are (Iraqi Police) at each checkpoint and (they`re) walking throughout the park and that`s one of our main things," he said.
"The next time we go out we`re going to meet with the head of security for the park and see what their actual mission is out there and see if we can help them out in any way."
Mowery said one of his key goals is to maintain a secure environment where people can come enjoy themselves and feel safe.
"That`s one of our big projects that were going to try to do here," Mowery said. "It`s good for the people to have a place where they can relax and get away from everything else outside."