Father of Lions, by Louise Callaghan

Trigger warning for cruelty to animals.

In my country, the word zoo conjures up images of animals wandering in enclosures that try hard to be small slices of habitat. The zoo closest to where I live has been undergoing waves of construction for the last decade as the last of the old cages are removed and new habitats created for different species to roam together. Still, I have memories from childhood and my early teens of visiting “zoos” that were little more than large cages containing unhealthy, depressed, animals. It’s these memories that roared back to the front of my mind as I read the heartbreaking and infuriating book Father of Lions, by Louise Callaghan. I’m not much of a crier, but this book had me close to tears more than once.

Much of this book centers on Abu Laith, who reads like a cross between Don Quixote and Steve Irwin. He is entirely self taught from watching the National Geographic Channel. He earned his nickname, Abu Laith, which means Father of Lions in Iraqi Arabi, when he was a child, thanks to his dogged love of animals and his red hair. In middle age, after moving from Baghdad to Mosul, Abu Laith wrangled a job as zookeeper at the city’s zoo (run more like an old-fashioned menagerie than an actual zoo). Abu Laith spends a lot of his time angry, tilting at windmills against people who neglect or abuse the animals in his care.

Life at the Mosul Zoo was not easy but it was stable, until the Islamic State took the city in 2014 and occupied it for more than two years. Disaster after disaster hits the zoo as food runs short, animals are stolen or killed, and Abu Laith runs afoul of the city’s new masters. When the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga begin to retake Mosul, things get even worse. In the months that it takes the Army and the Peshmerga to take the city, food runs so low that Abu Laith has to make the decision to ask his family to give up food to fees the surviving animals at the defunct zoo. In the end, only two animals survive the devastation: a bear named Lula and a lion that Abu Laith calls Zombie.

Father of Lions is hard to read. Many chapters are devoted to Abu Laith’s struggles during the occupation and the long wait for the ISIS’s defeat. In the last quarter of the book, news about the Mosul Zoo hits social media. Dr. Amir Khalil, an Egyptian veterinarian based in Vienna with the international animal rescue organization, Four Paws, learns about the bear and the lion and springs into action. This part was hugely frustrating for me because Dr. Khalil is stymied at almost every turn as misinformation from the owner—who thinks he let the dying animals go too cheaply—leads the public and Army officers to think that he is stealing the surviving animals. I have no idea how Dr. Khalil kept his temper. I was yelling at my advanced reader copy because I hated these people who tried to block the doctor’s efforts.

Father of Lions serves as a powerful reminder about the welfare of animals that we use to entertain ourselves, then forget when life gets dangerous. This is not to say that animal life is more valuable than human life, as some people point out to Dr. Khalil and Abu Laith. Rather, it is to say that war and violence cause incalculable to every living thing that touch, human and animal. It also serves as a reminder that not everyone values the lives of animals even when times are good. Animals feel pain and hunger and fear and we humans, who claim to be the dominant species, should never forget our duty to care for all of the other species we share the planet with.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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