Baghdad — The Baghdad Zoo on Friday welcomed a pair of rare Bengal tiger cubs that were donated by a North Carolina animal sanctuary despite protests by animal rights activists.
The tigers - a male and a female named Riley and Hope - frolicked with red and blue balls in a wading pool and playfully wrestled with each other in their cage, while U.S. soldiers and journalists snapped pictures and delighted Iraqis strolled by.
The animals, which were donated by the North Carolina-based Conservators' Center, arrived Monday after being flown to Baghdad from the United States in a $66,000 trip funded by the U.S. Embassy and transported to the zoo by the U.S. military.
Like many other Iraqi institutions, the Baghdad Zoo is struggling to emerge from years of devastation amid the violence that followed the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and officials showed off the tigers as proof of progress.
"This is a good day for the tigers, the zoo and the people of Iraq," zoo director Adel Salman Mousa said at a news conference at the park in central Baghdad.
But animal rights activists led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals criticized the move, saying it was premature as Baghdad continues to suffer from violence and destroyed infrastructure.
They also pointed to past violence against animals at the zoo, many of which were killed amid widespread fighting and looting that ensued after the Americans captured Baghdad. A U.S. soldier shot and killed a tiger at the zoo in September 2003 after the animal bit another soldier who had reached through the bars of the cage to feed it.
"Our heart goes out to the two tigers who had to endure the long trip to Iraq and a dangerous future at the Baghdad Zoo," PETA's Lisa Wathne said in an e-mailed statement. "These tigers will be caged, helpless, and completely dependent on humans to survive in an area where many people live in fear and are still without access to basic necessities."
Actress Kim Basinger also sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unsuccessfully appealing for it to revoke the export permit for the Bengal tigers, which are an endangered species.
The Conservators' Center, a nonprofit sanctuary and conservation breeding facility in Mebane, North Carolina, said it decided to send the tigers, which weigh 150 pounds each, to Baghdad to aid restoration efforts and education work at the zoo.
"We ... have the utmost concern for the well-being of the tigers," the organization's executive director, Mindy Stinner, said in a statement. "We have full confidence that the Baghdad Zoo has the staff and facilities to care for them long into the future."
U.S. military and zoo officials said they had spent more than a year preparing for the tigers' arrival and expressed confidence their care would meet international standards.
Mousa said the veterinarian staff has been trained to care for the tigers, who would be fed 13 to 18 pounds of red meat each day. It was the first foreign donation of animals to the zoo, which has 788 animals in 62 exhibits, he said.
Mousa also said he hoped to add more in the future to provide important educational opportunities for Iraqi youths. An elephant and a giraffe were at the top of his wish list.
U.S. and Iraqi troops occasionally patrol the zoo and it was heavily secured for Friday's press event, but security is normally provided by a private company, officials said.