Tucson soldier is at center of Baghdad Zoo’s tiger tale

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Tucson soldier is at center of Baghdad Zoo’s tiger tale

By Carol Ann Alaimo
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 08.17.2008

If the Army gave a prize for the most unusual Iraq mission, Capt. Jason Felix of Tucson could be a top contender.

Finding tigers for the Baghdad Zoo wasn’t in his orders when he embarked on his third deployment. But stabilizing a war-torn city sometimes calls for unorthodox approaches to soldiering.

Felix, a 1995 graduate of Canyon del Oro High School, was at the center of recent efforts to bring two U.S.-born tiger cubs to the zoo that is rising from the ashes after most of its animals died during the siege of Baghdad and the looting that followed.

The playful cats, a female, Hope, and a male, Riley, both Siberian-Bengal mixed breeds about 18 months old, have become star attractions since they arrived in early August.

Though Iraq still has a hornet’s nest of problems, the zoo’s rebirth is being touted as a symbol of progress. It’s a place where locals of different backgrounds can meet on common ground to enjoy life with their loved ones.

“It may seem minor, but when you have a safe place where Shia and Sunni families can go and intermingle without an incident of violence, that is a success,” said Felix, 31.

It’s an especially sweet success for Felix because the Baghdad Zoo, surrounded by parkland and gardens, reminds him of the beloved zoo of his childhood in Tucson.

“The first time I set foot in it, I immediately thought of Reid Park,” he said. “It’s so much like Reid Park it’s not funny.”

Felix knows whereof he speaks: His late father, Dan Felix, served as the city’s parks and recreation director. His mother, Madonna Felix, and three grandparents live in Tucson.
At the Baghdad Zoo, officials had abandoned hope of obtaining a tiger because of the rarity of the endangered species and the red tape involved in importing them. The zoo’s last tiger was shot and killed by a U.S. soldier in 2003 after it mauled another soldier who got too close to the cage.

Felix, with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, is project manager for the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion.

He’s responsible for community improvement projects in the Karkh district of Baghdad, which normally involves finding fixes for sewer, water or trash problems.

But during one walkabout, he met the Baghdad Zoo director, who said his top wish was to someday obtain a tiger for the facility.

“He told me I wouldn’t be able to get him a tiger because many organizations and Army units had tried over the years but never were able to do it,” Felix recalled. “That was all he had to say to get me going because I’m always up for a challenge.”

And a challenge it was. There were regulatory and logistical hurdles, ethical issues and security concerns, all of which had to be overcome in stages.

“For the first two weeks, everyone I called said, ‘This is not going to happen. It’s impossible.’ It was a rude awakening,” Felix said in an e-mail interview from Iraq.

Over time, many people got involved in the effort. Chief among them was Mindy Stinner, director of the Conservators’ Center, the North Carolina wildlife sanctuary that donated the cats.

Stinner said her outfit wasn’t willing to send the cubs overseas — and could not have received federal approval to do so — until a long list of improvements was made at the Iraqi zoo.
Infrastructure was upgraded, as was training for the staff. Zoo officials had to agree to hire private security for the entire complex.

They had to prove enough food was available and have a backup plan in case food supplies were interrupted.

Paperwork went back and forth between Iraq and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Felix arranged for veterinary inspections of the facilities and planned the tigers’ 7,000-mile journey.

“As the person who started this crazy project, my role was to find the key players and bring them all together,” he said. “We couldn’t afford any mistakes.”

Before the federal wildlife agency would grant an export permit, it wanted assurances the tigers would be used for educational purposes. Stinner said her organization is working with the Iraqis to set up those programs.

Some U.S. animal activists have called it irresponsible to send an endangered species into a war zone. Stinner defends the decision.

“These tigers are going to accomplish so much more for education and conservation over there than they could ever do here,” she said.

Felix said he’s seen many improvements in Baghdad over the course of his three deployments. “It’s not as bad as when I was here the first time in 2004,” he said. “Iraq is making changes all over, and they are changes in the right direction.”

He said he hopes the tigers will be symbols of progress for many years to come.

? Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or at calaimo@azstarnet.com.



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