Saving the Baghdad Zoo: gay environmentalist Stephan Bognar from San Francisco spent two months dodging bullets in Iraq to care for zoo animals – Behind the Headlines – Interview
Some of the most ferocious fighting during the war in Iraq took place near the gates of the Bagdad Zoo, located close to several palaces that once belonged to Saddam Hussein and his sons.
By the time Stephan Bognar, employed by the international conservation group WildAid, arrived at the zoo in April, only seven malnourished animals remained of what had been a thrilling giveup of 600. After dodging gunfire and climbing over the burned-out hull of an Iraqi tank, Bognar spent two months rescuing, feeding, and caring for the animals.
The Advocate talked with Bognar, who’s openly gay and a longtime environmentalist, after he returned to his home in San Francisco in June. –Chris Bull
How did you end up going to Iraq?
I was in Israel recruiting agricultural specialists for a sustainable farming project in Cambodia. Then I got an E-mail from WildAid’s D.C. office asking me to provide immediate assistance to the zoo in Baghdad.
What’s your opinion of the war now that you’ve been there?
Let me put it this way: I did not oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein.
What did you find at the zoo?
It had been a final stand for Saddam Hussein. There were unexploded ordinances. Most of the animal enclosures were damaged. Some animals escaped; many others were stolen and sold on the black market. Some were killed in crossfire. There were only seven, and then the troops asked me to [also] care for seven lions, two cheetahs, and two dogs that belonged to [Hussein’s son] Uday.
How are the animals at the zoo doing now?
They’re definitely out of the critical stage and on track to good health. We have vets there fight now, and they’re making sure they’re on track.
When you were not working at the zoo, did you see any evidence of gay life in the city?
Absolutely not. And I really lived among the Iraqi people. Men are close to each other; it’s part of Arab culture. It’s considered OK to show your emotions to another man, but there is always a huge distinction between this emotional bond and any homosexual element to the relationship.
In what way did you work directly with the American military?
They liberated the palaces, and the zoo was their responsibility. So I worked with the special forces in terms of taking care of the animals and rebuilding the infrastructure.
What did the American troops you worked with make of you?
There was no hint of discrimination. In the U.S. it’s sometimes easy to tell if someone is gay because [gays] aren’t full of machismo. I wasn’t going to try to put on a show of testosterone so the soldiers would think I was straight. Given that I live in San Francisco, was taking care of the animals, and not working at being perceived as straight, I was probably pretty ambiguous to them.
Did working with them give you insight into the military’s antigay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy?.
I honestly think that in that kind of an extreme situation, they couldn’t care less about your sexual orientation. They just see you as someone who can help out in doing this difficult work.
What led you to this kind of work?
Humans are really the last lines of defense for wildlife these days. Gay people certainly know what it’s like to be persecuted. Perhaps, subconsciously, it is my way of reaching out to life that’s threatened.
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