Father of Lions: Saving Starving Animals at the Mosul Zoo

An interview with Louise Callaghan about zookeeper Abu Laith's selfless efforts.

Posted Jan 16, 2020

"Through the story of a man who loves both lions and life, Louise Callaghan shows how humour and defiance can counter cruelty, and why both humans and animals crave freedom.” Lindsey Hilsum

A few months ago, I received a book by Louise Callaghan, Middle East correspondent at The Sunday Times of London, titled Father of Lions: One Man's Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo. I started flipping through it, assuming I'd read it at a later date, however, a few hours later, I was still reading it word-for-word. Part of the book description reads,

"Father of Lions is the powerful true story of the evacuation of the Mosul Zoo, featuring Abu Laith the zookeeper, Simba the lion cub, Lula the bear, and countless others...Combining a true-to-life narrative of humanity in the wake of war with the heartstring-tugging account of rescued animals, Father of Lions will appeal to audiences of bestsellers like The Zookeeper’s Wife and The Bookseller of Kabul as well as fans of true animal stories such as A Streetcat Named Bob, Marley and Me, and Finding Atticus."

And, powerful and equally inspirational it is. Lindsey Hilsum's endorsement above captures the essence of Ms. Callaghan's outstanding book.

I wanted to know more about Father of Lions—Abu Laith and the book itself—and I'm pleased to post this brief interview with Ms. Callaghan. 

What inspired you and why did you write Father of Lions?

I was working in Mosul for The Sunday Times of London in 2016, covering the battle to liberate the city from Isis. Every day, we’d meet civilians who’d been displaced from their homes, and those who had been injured in the fighting. It was quite unremittingly grim. But one day we heard that there was a zoo that had survived the battle. We got there not long after Isis had been pushed from the area, and I bumped into Abu Laith, the zookeeper, and Hakam, another local who helped the animals. I just thought it was such a fascinating story, and I got along really well with the two of them. That’s where the book began. 

Tom Doherty Associates
Source: Tom Doherty Associates

How did you gather information to be able to reconstruct the story, talk with the incredible people who were involved, and to write your fascinating and important book?

I spent weeks in Mosul over about a year and a half, talking over everything in minute detail to the main characters and visiting all the places they had been. I was lucky that I had spent so much time in the city during the battle to push out Isis, so I already had lots of material that I could use. 

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who is interested in the Middle East, animals, or stories of human resilience

What are some of your major messages?

That people can survive and do good, even when their lives are completely destroyed. 

What lessons can be learned from the work at the Mosul Zoo? Are you hopeful that these lessons will inspire others to do what Abu Laith and Hakam courageously and selflessly did in similar circumstances?

In wars, animals always suffer: families might not have enough food to feed their children, let alone their pets, and are faced with very difficult decisions. But saying that, I’ve heard many stories of people who’ve risked everything to help animals in conflict zones—from Baghdad to Chechnya and beyond. 

Why should people who are interested in animal protection read your book?

It’s an insight into how animals, and the humans who care for them, are affected in wars— in terms of physical harm, but also psychologically. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

I’m the Middle East correspondent at The Sunday Times of London, so I am working on a range of stories across the region—from Turkey to Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It’s a remarkable job and I’m extremely lucky to meet so many fascinating people. 

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

This from the Mosul zookeeper: if you’re trying to catch an escaped monkey, lure them in with slices of orange. 

Thanks, Louise, for taking the time to answer these questions. Abu Laith, Hakam, and others serve as models for the sorts of people all animals need on their side, and your book shows just what can be done when people decide to help other animals in need, even in dire situations such as that at the Mosul Zoo.  When we help other animals, we help ourselves.