Baghdad Zoo: A different battle
A war story with lions, tigers and bears
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- As U.S. forces were trying to gain control of Baghdad, a group of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division suddenly realized the war zone had become a zoo, literally.
Iraqi soldiers had turned the city zoo into a battlefield, firing off artillery and anti-aircraft guns at U.S. positions, and the deserted animals were forced to fend for themselves, likely terrified from the sound of gunfire.
Eventually, when U.S. forces came through, one soldier said it was hard to believe what they had found.
"I think it was very surreal," said Maj. Rick Nussio. "I mean here we are in the middle of the city, everyone's been talking about urban combat for three months, and the next thing you know there's camels walking through our position, and monkeys in the trees, and at night you have a lion roaming free. It was very surreal, very strange."
The lions and camels, along with two bears, an ocelot, exotic birds, monkeys, pigs, a wolf and other animals had been left alone -- without food -- listless and hungry in the middle of a war.
Suddenly the battle changed from fighting Iraqis to fighting for the lives of the zoo animals.
"Well, I think it was just their state of helplessness," Nussio said. "Here they are, caged up, no water or food, no way to get water or food," he said. "And, I mean, I just don't think it was something we could turn our back on."
The plight of many of the zoo animals was pitiful. No one was left around to tell Nussio and his fellow soldiers-turned-zookeepers how long the creatures had gone without food or water, let alone how to properly care for them.
Difficult decisions had to be made. Pigs in the zoo had to be sacrificed -- their meat rationed to feed more exotic carnivores such as the tigers, lions and bears. Even a wolf -- who was too near death when found by the soldiers -- had to be used as animal rations when the end finally came.
But soldiers can't be zookeepers all the time, and one night Nussio's unit was forced to abandon the animals to rejoin the war.
During their absence, the zoo was looted. Cages were torn open by thieves who took birds, goats and apparently any animal unlikely to bite back. The zoo's monkeys simply were turned loose on the city, a cruel liberation in an unnatural habitat.
"There's not much we can do to get those monkeys back," Nussio said, his voice tinged with disappointment.
Despite the setbacks, the soldiers grew determined to win this battle -- the battle for the lives of the animals.
Part of the fight was battling against the lack of the simplest conveniences, such as running water. Soldiers, helped by some Iraqis, were forced to cart water to the zoo over long distances. The animals will not die of thirst.
After saving the animals, this band of U.S. soldiers -- who prepared themselves to fight the war of their generation -- eventually will be returning home with unexpected and unique stories to tell. For Nussio, his war stories will include the legendary king of beasts.
"One of the things behind it was having that close, personal contact with the lion," Nussio said. "I don't think very many people would get that in their life. And I certainly never thought -- going to combat in Baghdad -- I'd end up feeding a lion."
CNN Correspondent Michael Holmes contributed to this report.