Animals are seldom seen at airports, but Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, is remarkable for its exotic arrivals. On April 11, a flight landed carrying a bear called Lula and a lion called Simba, the only two surviving animals from Mosul zoo in Iraq. More than 40 other animals had died during the fight to liberate Mosul from Isis — either caught up in the bullets and blasts, or from starvation.
By the time Simba and Lula were rescued, they were emaciated, wounded and deeply traumatised. It would take two weeks for Simba to leave his shelter and explore his new home. Then, on August 10, airport staff welcomed five lions, two tigers, two bears, two hyenas and two husky dogs from Magic World — a zoo just outside Aleppo, Syria, which didn't look much like a zoo after six years of civil war. Around 110 animals had died, the keepers were nowhere to be seen, enclosures were filled with filth and mortar shells, and the few creatures not wiped out by the war were getting worse by the hour.
The safe arrival of these animals in Jordan marked the culmination of a particularly hard few months for Amir Khalil, 52, a vet who works for Four Paws, an Austria-based animal-rescue organisation, and the instigator of both operations. Rescuing the animals was costly and dangerous. An Isis suicide bomber blew himself up outside the zoo in Mosul, forcing Khalil — who had just arrived to save Simba and Lula — to leave again. Getting the animals out of Aleppo meant crossing through rebel government and al Qaeda-held territory.
There was machine-gun fire, and endless red tape involved in repeatedly trying (and failing) to get the animals through checkpoints. In recent years we have heard much about the human cost of war: 400,000 killed in Syria; an estimated 40,000 civilian casualties in Mosul alone. Why so much effort for a few animals? Or, as officials liked to say to Khalil, "just" animals.
"Humans have the option to escape but animals caged in a zoo don't have this option," he says. And yes, of course, there has been profound human suffering but animals, too, should give us pause. "It was humans who brought animals to these places," he says "and they depend on us to get them out. They cannot speak, they have no political agenda, but they are messengers from the darkness, they bring hope."
The New Hope Centre is situated in a peaceful valley on the outskirts of Amman. Dogs lie asleep in the driveway, there are fig and olive trees, and red flowers in front of neat fences. Everything is shaded, soft, good-natured. In the distance are the animal enclosures. Run by Four Paws and The Princess Alia Foundation (PAF), the centre was set up as a refuge for animals confiscated from "private" zoos in Jordan, which treated creatures badly and kept them in cramped conditions. Jordan is also a main thoroughfare for the illegal trade in wild animals sold as pets.
Impounded animals at the centre presently include monkeys, kestrels and an owl (past seizures include lion cubs and five porcupines). There is a tank containing a 6m python. Outside is a giant tortoise rescued from "the worst zoo in the world" — the Khan Yunis zoo in the Gaza Strip, which was closed down by Four Paws in 2015. Creatures were reportedly left to starve in filthy cages, and those that died were mummified and displayed alongside living ones, as an attraction to boost numbers. "It was like a horror movie," says Khalil.
It is October when we meet and Khalil is here to assess Lula and Simba. They have been here since April for treatment and rehabilitation, and are now ready for the next stage: either Al Ma'wa — a new sanctuary run by Four Paws and PAF near Jerash, an hour's drive north – or further afield. Four Paws has 10 sanctuaries across the globe.
Khalil speaks quickly in a voice laced with various accents. Born in Egypt, he has lived in Vienna for the past 27 years, and has a Bulgarian wife. (He speaks six languages, including Coptic Egyptian.) He has worked for Four Paws for 25 years, most recently as director of project development and of the rapid response unit.
It is the oddity of this role — at the intersection of veterinary science, animal welfare, Bond-like subterfuge and activism — that he likes. Past missions include liberating dancing bears in Bulgaria, and elephants that had been press-ganged into carrying tourists on safari in Zimbabwe. He is so often found in the middle of a crisis — battling soldiers, government authorities, zoo owners — that you can only assume he enjoys it. He's had a gun pointed at his head in both Kosovo and Kenya, but has an optimistic approach to his mortality.
"Honestly, I was not really afraid. I thought, 'This is not my time yet.''' He subsists on cigarettes and caffeine, rarely sleeps more than five hours a night, has six mobile phones to cover the three continents he works on, and rallies his team through sheer force of character.
"He never gives up," says Juno Van Zon, an animal keeper at Four Paws Netherlands. "That type of emotion is contagious."
When a mission is complete, he celebrates with a cigar, a glass of whisky and a blast of My Way by Frank Sinatra. Khalil shows me a photo he took when he first saw Simba. He is skeletal for a 3-year-old, in a cage barely big enough for him to turn around in. Simba's father, who was weak, had been killed by Simba's mother to provide food for herself and Simba. But she died soon after and there is a disturbing image of her corpse in front of Simba's cage.
The detritus within the cage included months of his own waste, animal carcasses — locals had tried throwing food in — plastic bottles, rubbish. "The smell ... I mean, you can imagine what it must have been like for him. Cats are clean, they clean themselves all the time.
"He'd had 60 days of just war, bullets, explosions. Animals hear and smell better than humans. We can understand there is a battle but animals hear explosions, and smell the powder from missiles and don't know what's going on."
We walk down a pathway to the animal enclosures. Simba is sitting in a lordly manner on a raised wooden platform. He jumps down and saunters over. His mane (its growth was stunted because he was so malnourished) is finally emerging. He has made friends with the dogs and his favourite toy is a large tyre, which he chews or wears around his neck like a necklace.
"He is shining, happy. He doesn't need to be scared any more," says Khalil, smiling fondly. 'He can say, with pride, 'I am a lion.'" Walking on, we come to Lula, a particularly "kind" and "gentle" Syrian brown bear, according to Khalil.
He explains that she still needs to gain more weight, but she is considerably happier than when he found her. She was gaunt, dehydrated and had eaten her two cubs from hunger and stress. "She was afraid, and she didn't have good nutrition, didn't have good milk, and she was a mum, she knew she was not able to protect them. Animals under pressure do this."
Lula is now housed in a spacious enclosure with hillocks and trees and as we watch her eating aubergines, pomegranates, grapes and pears, it is possible to imagine, or hope, that she has put her old life behind her.
Khalil was born the oldest of five in El Fayoum, a town 80km south of Cairo, where his father worked for the Ministry of the Interior as a prison pharmacist and his mother was a housewife. He was inspired to become a vet as a result of a grand childhood passion for Daktari, the American television series about a vet and his family who ran an animal study centre in Africa.
At 18, he went to Cairo University to study veterinary medicine, then got a scholarship to study wild animals in Pretoria, South Africa. When he was 25, he won a scholarship to Edinburgh University and his mother asked if he would go via Vienna.
"My sister, who was living there, had met her future husband and my mother wanted me to check him out," he explains. Khalil arrived and fell in love — with the city, and with a girl. "I decided to leave everything behind and have a new start."
It was there that he a saw a notice. Four Paws were calling for volunteers to help castrate stray dogs in Romania. Khalil saw it as an opportunity to improve his surgical skills. So he went to Bucharest and discovered the problem was not a few dogs, but more than 300,000 strays — a legacy of a decision by the late dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu to destroy large residential areas of the city in the mid-1980s, creating wide areas for stray dogs to roam. The authorities' policy was to exterminate strays by putting them in baths of sulphuric acid.
In 1997, by then working full-time for Four Paws, Khalil contacted Brigitte Bardot, the film star and animal-rights activist, for support. She had a meeting with Traian Basescu, the mayor of Bucharest, and in 2001 she and Basescu signed a deal to save 100,000 stray dogs. Bardot donated $140,000 over two years for mass sterilisation; Basescu ring-fenced $1.5 million for dog catchers and delousing treatment. Khalil converted an old police bus into a mobile sterilisation clinic.
He'd found his metier. "Step by step, things started to develop," he says. In 2003, he was sent to Baghdad, then being bombed by the US-led coalition in the Iraq war, to recover the 20 or so surviving animals from Saddam Hussein's private zoo, which had once held more than 650 animals. Khalil also discovered nine lions in the grounds of Saddam's palace, which had belonged to his psychopathic son, Uday.
"We moved them to the zoo in Baghdad. When there is a conflict, or a crisis, my job is to think, what will happen to the animals?" he explains. "In a flood or a hurricane, everybody thinks about the humans; few people think about the animals trapped in zoos."
In October 2016, when the campaign to expel Isis from Mosul began, messages started to appear on Four Paws' Facebook page. They were from locals, saying "please help", he says.
In February Khalil went to Erbil, in northern Iraq, to investigate logistics. Iraqi forces had recently liberated the eastern half of Mosul; the front line had moved west, but there was still fighting in the east, still snipers and the risk of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and Mosul was sealed off.
"No one was allowed in or out, except for humanitarian aid," he says. He mapped his route, counted the number of checkpoints he'd have to clear (five), secured a military permit, and hired a security guard, a driver and a car. The next day, he headed for the zoo. He found rubble, broken cages, bullets. "I was so glad to see the animals."
He was about to tranquillise Simba to examine him when something exploded behind him — the suicide bomber. He was ordered out immediately. He flew back to Vienna, but left medicine and money for four locals to care for the animals until he could return. Back at the Four Paws headquarters, he made contact with Mohammed Shabbaan, the zoo's owner, who had fled to Erbil.
"He thought we were crazy, but said, 'Just take them.'" Khalil commissioned a contractor in Erbil to build two cages and hired a security company, then returned to Erbil. Four days later, a team of five from Four Paws left at 5am, in three armoured cars, plus a truck for the animals. When they arrived at Mosul zoo, "People started to appear and say, 'We are the owners of the animals,' and demand money."
Khalil ordered security to close the two entrances to the zoo. Lula and Simba were sedated, ready for travel, and loaded on to the truck. The convoy snaked out of the city — only to be halted at the last checkpoint before the Kurdistan border. Erbil was barely 10km away. The Iraqis demanded more documents and ordered the animals to be sent back to the zoo.
By then it was too dark to go back to Mosul, being unsafe to drive through the city at night. The army returned the animals to the zoo; Khalil and his team returned to Erbil. "We were crazy mad," he says.
On March 30, he made another attempt but again was blocked at the border. The convoy did not budge for nine days. By day, Khalil travelled throughout northern Iraq, pleading with officials. "One said, 'If you want to solve the problem, use these two bullets [to kill the animals],'" he recalls. By night, he slept at the checkpoint. "On the first night, I slept in the truck and I could hear that Lula and Simba were communicating. They were talking to each other.
"We were about 27km from Mosul and it was not easy for us to find food but the soldiers started to get attached. They would say, 'We confiscated this chicken. Please use it to feed your animals.'" On the 10th day, Khalil sent the animals back to the zoo. Shortly afterwards, an empty truck pulled up at Mosul zoo and Simba and Lula were loaded on board. This time they passed through the checkpoint with no trouble. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel smuggling aristocrats out of Paris, "we disguised them as a delivery of vegetables", Khalil explains.
Al Ma'wa wildlife sanctuary is around 37km north of Amman, commanding splendid panoramic views of mountains and the town of Souf. Established by PAF with the support of Four Paws, it consists of 140ha, with animals in enclosures, feeding peacefully or running about. The first animals were transferred here last October. This centre currently houses 25 animals — nine of them rescued from Aleppo.
Those that cannot be rehomed or released into the wild will have a permanent home here. The alpha lion (currently nameless) from Magic World in Aleppo growls as we approach. He comes up to the bars of his cage and looks me in the eye. His face appears remarkably large. The beta male is Kahraba. "It means 'electric fence' in Arabic," says Diana Bernas, head of animal care.
"He is so happy-go-lucky, he kept walking over the electric fence. It didn't seem to bother him, but we had to turn it off. His mate is thought to be Halab [Arabic for 'Aleppo'], a very determined lioness. They're kept in separate units but we are in the process of maybe bringing this group together to be a pride, as they probably were in Aleppo."
By late afternoon, Khalil has made his decision. Simba will go to Lionsrock, Four Paws' big-cat sanctuary in Bethlehem, South Africa.
"It will be difficult to bring Simba into the pride from Aleppo because that group has two male lions, and they might kill him," he says.
There are more than 128 big cats at Lionsrock. "Lots of options for him to be in a family." The idea is to find a mate for Simba, but not for him to become a father. Four Paws has a no-breeding policy: all males have vasectomies. "The idea of a sanctuary is to rescue animals who are in bad condition," he explains. Offspring would take up valuable money and space.
Lula, he says, may go to one of Four Paws' bear sanctuaries — there are five in Europe and one in Vietnam. "But currently her enclosure is very nice, she is very relaxed, so we are not under pressure."
Khalil admits that his wife, Tsveti, and their three daughters aren't happy that he spends less than two months a year at home.
"My family is worried all the time," he says. "But on a mission you see not only bad things." He tells of soldiers from warring sides who dropped their weapons and came together to help the team, who took selfies with the animals and gave them their food. Animals humanise us, he says. "They build bridges between nations, make us better people."