Manno The Duhok Zoo’s Chimp

Manno The Duhok Zoo’s Chimp

In the summer of 2013 I was scheduled to go to the northern part of Iraq, Kurdistan, to help a local vet who was starting up an animal rescue organization KOARP that was essentially his version of a Kurdish SPCA. Unfortunately I was unable to fulfill my obligation during that summer yet since I always like to finish what I set out to do and keep my word. December 2013 during my two week Christmas holiday, with my wife’s blessing, I decided to head off to Northern Iraq.

Traveling to Kurdistan through Istanbul, Turkey one of the world’s most beautiful cities where they have a unique program in which the street cats and dogs are vaccinated, tagged and fixed but left otherwise to roam the streets.

Many locals leave food out for both the cats and the dogs however, as in all places, typically with young men or adolescent boys as it seems to be in every culture they sometimes can be very cruel to animals.

Having said that, I loved this program especially around the main square between Sophia Hagia and the Blue Mosque through many dogs each with its own territory. In fact bored after half a day in a canned bus tour that I loathe, I still don’t know why I chose to partake in that activity, I know better! I split off from my group, grabbed my bag from the bus and having my fill of the beautiful architecture and droning tour guide I decided to follow my bliss and feed and pet these lovely animals. The day before I befriended this massive dog with a big split in its nose and spent a few hours looking for him I then enjoyed petting the big guy. In fact during the tour I was more interested in petting the cats & dogs than listening to our guide. I absolutely love these creatures.

I don’t know what the answer is for strays in the world. Whether one takes the route of Istanbul and fix and vaccinate then leaving them on their own or to do as they did when I was in Sierra Leone or apparently what they did in Duhok have a massive cull.

I absolutely support no kill shelters and the killing to me is not something that I would ever want to take part in your witness or support however thinking back to Sierra Leone there were so many hundreds and thousands of dogs I don’t know what other option that they would have had.

I flew into the Kurdish city of Irbil and its modern clean airport where after some confusion & a short walk I was met with the short stout potbellied Kurdish veterinarian I would be helping with graying hair and the typical thick Kurdish mustache and an amusing habit of interrupting as soon as I began to speak. The plan while I was there was to assist in the rescue of various street dogs around the nearby city of Duhok also offering public education to schools, organizations & residents. Once I was in Duhok at least compared to many other places I’ve been there were really no stray dogs and I could see to speak of. At least there were none within the city limits.

Once we went to the outskirts in the countryside there were many stray and feral dogs. Dr. Tameer informed me that apparently there is a cull that claimed the lives of a thousand dogs in 2013. However what I saw there was a local slaughterhouse of animals in which the dogs fed off of the leftover carcasses left out for them so food was not an issue and the locals at least from what I witnessed cohabitated peacefully with these animals and they seemed to live in relative freedom. In fact some local boys took us to see a couple litters of puppies. One in a small cave on the side of a hill & another under a metal cargo container located nearby.

Then one evening as the sun was dipping into the Kurdish horizon walking back to Suleiman’s white Toyota pick up truck, with the customary brown graphic decals on the side, I noticed a small bundle of fur rustling in the dirt & grass. I went over to the infant dog that initially cowered a bit when I bent over to pick it up and once in my arms my heart melted. I don’t think there is anything in the world even that beautiful orange sunset that brings me as much happiness as a puppy. My family & friends joked back home when they saw the video clip as I’m smooching this soft cuddly little creature at least I had my rubber gloves on! I laughed, the gloves were due to Suleiman’s veterinary training & ‘his idea not mine’ was my response. I couldn’t get this little guy out of my mind so we returned a few days later & the puppy wasn’t there. It appeared to be healthy, & fed we figured Mom was probably out searching for food to return later. At any rate the dog did not seem to be in any danger it appeared physiologically healthy and it’s free to live with its pack and family. Who am I to say I would offer this particular animal a better existence. Not able to keep the puppy off of my mind I did return a few days later & the puppy was nowhere to be seen

I won’t say that in every case our North American or Western European dogs have got it better than dogs that are stray or feral. There were certainly the odd dog tripodding along with a broken or injured leg that we could not even get within 100 meters of to assist it. However one has to ask yourself these dogs are with their pack free to roam and in this case they were well fed. Is that worse? Or do North American & Europeans have it better with our dogs? Sure they have shelter food and comfort but I know with my own animals since my wife and I both work we leave and they’re left all alone for hours at a time. Dogs being a social animal I’m not always sure that this has a better life then the strays in certain situations.

Shortly after arriving my hotel I was delighted to learn that I was a 10-minute walk from the Duhok Zoo. When I arrived to the zoo Dr. Suleiman the veterinarian who I was assisting introduce me to the zoo curator a pleasant looking tall man of average build in a black mock turtle neck and faded black jeans and a shaved head a man called Mr. Ramadan. For my stay Mr. Ramadan was nothing but nice to me and offered me the upmost hospitality that was true to the spirit of Islam and he was a gracious host.

Almost immediately when I was touring the zoo in the zoos confectionery store I couldn’t believe my eyes this little chimpanzee named Manno was being a delightful little brat raiding all of the goodies from the store. Like an unruly spoiled child Manno delighted in the savory snacks and loved his sunflower seeds. Absolutely amazed and overwhelmed they past Manno to me who was cautious and hesitant at first however after I took him into my arms it didn’t take long for him to settle in and during my time there we soon became inseparable.

I became a fixture at the zoo every morning not including when Suleiman also took time out of his schedule to give me a tour of Kurdistan & the beautiful countryside. Seeing sites & witnessing how Saddam Hussein brutalized the Kurds & used the entire country as his own personal playground and bank. I also met some older however even now no less formidable peshmeerga fighters who rebelled and fought against Saddam’s slaughter of these people.

I would walk over to the zoo in the morning and since Manno was such an incredible handful I basically became Manno’s surrogate for my time there. During my time in Duhok I established of a routine after my morning workout and breakfast since Dr. Suleiman had his veterinarian government job as a facility inspector until about 3 PM when we go and first have lunch before heading out to assist dogs or whatever animal was a need.

It is during that time period that I became absolutely enamored with little Manno and we became such close friends. From what I could tell the curator & zoo attendants I think they thought I was a veterinarian from Canada a charade I was willing to keep going as I was getting unlimited access to all of the animals at the zoo.

When I would arrive to the zoo in the morning and Manno was already out he would see me from across the zoo and come barreling over to me with absolutely glee jumping into my arms. He especially liked to snuggle in my chest under my coat and often drift into chimpanzee slumber. When it came time for me to leave later each day and I have to pass Manno on to a zoo attendant he threw a little tantrum trying to keep holding on to me his lanky outstretched arms grasping for me as he squealed that couldn’t help break my heart. The others attendants also cared deeply for Manno and loved him dearly. And I think they were somewhat relieved that someone else was at the zoo to give them a break and take on the task of following this little bundle of black haired mischief that would rip around the zoo grounds. It was very pleasing when a family would come in and see Manno in my arms to see them light up and beeline over to this bundle of primate that shares 98% of our DNA.

However it didn’t take long for me to see that they were going to have issues with this little guy. In 2008 I spent some time at Lola ya Bonobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In which this most remarkable Belgian lady Claudine Andre has taken it upon herself to rescue bonobos a smaller cousin to the chimps with the hope of releasing them back into the wild. There were three separate enclosures of a few acres each and the idea was to be able to get the bonobos self-sufficient to eventually reintroduce them back into the wild. I had read extensively on bonobos & Lola before going there & the fact that they have the reputation as being kinder & gentler than chimps that is a bit of a misnomer. They are still incredibly strong and can be incredibly vicious a fact the day I had arrived two workers had their faces ripped off by a troop of bonobos they were guarding while being reintroduced into the wild

As Claudine will tell you in a perfect world she wished that she did not have to have the sanctuary. What typically happens, and I certainly understand the appeal, I myself wanted to have a baby chimp or monkey as a pet before I went to the Democratic Republic of Congo and saw firsthand the reality of human’s cohabitating with primates. At Lola there was the cutest sweetest little girl bonobo Kasai Who is dressed up and diapers and had a surrogate that had to raise her.

Bonobos are extremely fragile as infants much more than even chimps and need that parental bond and Evelyn a French lady had that role and performed it wonderfully. Animal loving people see little babies like Kasai dressed up and little baby outfits and they want one for themselves not understanding the implications of this. Incidentally Kasai and a number of other bonobos died when a flu virus ravaged the sanctuary in 2009

First of all to get the baby they have to go in and execute that is to kill the entire family to get the baby. Then the baby is sold on the black market and what happens is these bonobos or pigmy chimps as they are also known, are bought by people. When they are babies they are not unlike human babies requiring constant attention feeding and they’re so incredibly cute. However not unlike the Planet of the Apes movie, what happens is we don’t understand that these are wild animals and people have tried to teach them to be human they are not and will never be human. Eventually when the animal gets big enough it’s play can seriously hurt or even kill a human being so invariably what happens is these cute little toddlers end up being uncontrollable to the owners and sometimes even cause incredible damage injury or even death.

So often the pets (and that includes entertainment chimps) are sold to medical research laboratories or if they are lucky enough in this case of the bonobos at Lola they are rescued. While at Lola I discover the truth about these adorably mischievous little creatures is it they could be downright mean by human standards and get absolute joy out of it.

With this in mind I could see that as Manno becomes a mature and stronger ape they’re going to have incredible issues with him. Not only that because he required so much attention from zookeepers who were not always able to spend 24 hours a day seven days a week with him so the size of his cage so he could be a draw for the zoo was this tiny 1 m x 1 m cage in which people could come and see him.

I will never understand this and across cultures why people seem to get enjoyment out of provoking animals. This was no different. There were young men they came to Manno and teased and taunted him in the cage and even try to get him to smoke cigarettes when I saw this I became enraged keeping in mind that I was still a visitor in their country. I simply didn’t care, that was crossing the line for me. I would have to admonish sometimes grown men for this behaviour. As much as I love Manno I still recognize that he could be an incredible brat. For instance in every day things when we had to change Manno’s diapers or wash him in the sink and he didn’t want to he would throw a tantrum that included biting. Of course at this young age he is not big enough to do any damage but when he gets older one could easily lose a digit or worse.

I could predict what is going to happen that eventually Manno will be uncontrollable for the Zoo or at the very least be confined to a cement and bar prison. In addition as an animal lover as I walked around the zoo though the animals were all cared for, fed and their cages cleaned on a daily basis however something like an Iraqi wolf or a bear is not meant to be in a cage the size of your living room. This saddens me greatly however and it became even deeper and I was in despair when I found out all of the animals were illegally smuggled in on the black market.

These animals are brought in terrible conditions. In fact when I was there two tiny Rottweiler puppies were brought in apparently from the same people that smuggled the zoo animals that have been brought in from Turkey to sell in Kurdistan. Both dogs were in terrible shape and one was struggling to breathe it was one of the mornings that I was at the zoo and Dr. Tameer was doing his job. I called Sulaiman and told him the situation and urged him to get to the zoo as quick as possible with some medicine. After about an hour the doctor arrived and the moment he stepped into the zoo office we’re both dogs were he pointed to the one that was struggling on my lap immediately and with all of these years experience he must’ve just known he said ‘that dog is not going to live.’ In despair I continued to stroke its tiny little black head and I urged him to give both dogs the antibiotics anyway, and he did. Suleiman’s wisdom prevailed and the dog passed over into the rainbow bridge as it sat in my lap a few moments later. Luckily the other pup after only a few days of antibiotics was able to recover. I spoke to the smuggler on the phone and all he cared about was the financial aspect of this transaction. One puppy died but to him that was just the cost of doing business

So here I was in this moral conundrum this very nice man who by Iraqi standards was not breaking any laws and treated me with such gracious courtesy I cannot say enough good things about him yet as a person he was participating in illegal animal trade kidnapping animals from their natural environment. I will reserve my opinion on zoos. I understand that they can be good tools teaching people about animals and inspiring future generations to care about these animals and provided they were born and raised in captivity and given stimulating natural surroundings I don’t know maybe animals absolutely love living in Zoos. Maybe the gazelle goes ‘are you kidding me I get to graze all day and I have all the girls I want and I don’t have to get eaten by the lion this is great!’ Likewise perhaps the lion that sleeps 23 hours a day and is fed is completely content with this situation I don’t know the answer.

I do believe that zoos must take the responsibility of what is best for these animals as we are the caregivers of these creatures. I like most people was absolutely horrified when I heard of the Copenhagen zoo slaughtering the giraffes and later the Lions because they became inconvenient. However I will say that when I went to the zoo at Erbil it was the most distressing and horrible example of torture and prison for animals I hope to ever see in my life. Animals pacing back and forth incessantly at the bars, a baboon living in what appeared to be a garbage dump, piles of refuse surrounding it while the primate was actually eating cigarette butts. Some jerk while I was standing there actually tried to feed the baboon a cigarette and I am not proud of this but I did threaten this man with physical violence.

The animals in the Erbil Zoo have since been moved from this abomination of a facility into something more akin to the Duhok Zoo in an effort spearheaded by Dr. Tameer. Though the new zoo is still far from ideal it was a huge step in the right direction.

In Duhok I had to figure out what to do. Here I am with this man who is giving me full access to his zoo and on a personal level has treated me so well. Do I contact somebody? I tried. There was absolutely no avenue that I left unexplored. In fact most places did not even return my emails or calls. By Iraqi standards Ramadan was not breaking any laws, Iraq and Kurdistan though having its own government is still considered part of Iraq and is not a member of CITES the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, (also known as the Washington Convention) a treaty designed to protect endangered plants and animals.

I’m also very sensitive to not always to impose Western morals and ideals on other parts of the world. This is an arrogant and self-centered point of view that when you think about it in every single circumstance when ever we have imposed our value system on indigenous cultures it is not gone well. Every single time.

My first thought was to raise funds and purchase Manno and get him into a proper chimpanzee reserve or sanctuary like the one in Quebec, The Fauna Foundation. However the reality of that is I would simply be perpetuating illegal animal trade and having a part in another chimpanzee family being slaughtered in the Congo. The zoo would simply acquire another chimp. My only hope is that one-day Mr. Ramadan would understand that Manno has become too much for him and his facility to handle. Being a businessman however I suspect that he will sell Manno to the highest bidder, which may even, be a medical research facility. I was distressed when I heard Mr. Ramadan’s plans were to get Manno a female companion or mate which means that there will be some more illegal to kidnapping of these beautiful creatures.

When I was in Kurdistan I did my best to contact his many authorities is I could think of that would be interested in stopping the illegal animal smuggling that was going on.

It was somewhat of a moral quandary as I had this man that treated me like a brother yet he was doing something that absolutely when against every moral fiber in my body.

In the end the animals won out I was able to discover how much he paid for various animals and the routes in which they were smuggled into the country.

I tried contacting CITES, the United Nations the US State Department Interpol, and as many animal rescue groups and zoos as I could think of. I heard back from a few zoos and rescue organizations though I suspect they are all so overwhelmed with work, underfunded and under staffed as well. Although I met online a few really interesting helpful people the long and short of it is there is basically little I could do.

I still think of Manno almost every day and it fills my heart with a sad ache followed by one of regret. I feel as though I have abandoned my little friend to lifetime behind bars confined to a cage. I can only hope that one day I meet Manno again and he is somehow rescued and happy in some sort of chimpanzee sanctuary and see an end to this despicable practice of illegal animal smuggling that unfortunately all too often is accepted all over the world.