Excerpt from Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Father of Lions

One Man's Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo

by Louise Callaghan

Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan X
Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan
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    Jan 2020, 400 pages

    Jan 2021, 416 pages


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Under the Iraqi legal system, pigeon owners were not considered trustworthy enough to testify in court. They had a reputation for always getting into fights and drinking too much whisky. Abu Laith fitted the stereotype all too well. He was a shaqawa – a kind of good-hearted neighbourhood thug. The sort of man you might call if you needed an extra pair of fists in a fight, or if someone was harassing your daughter, and needed to be scared off. He would never let anyone else pay for lunch, and always lent money to his relatives, grasping as he thought they were.

Since he was a young man, Abu Laith had made his living as a mechanic, fixing cars in the neighbourhood. At first he'd earned a few dinars here and there, but now he ran a big garage with several employees, where he charged hundreds of dollars to fix large American cars of the kind favoured by Mosul's elite. But this was nothing more than a distraction from his real love: large, dangerous animals.

In 2013 he had decided to take an enormous step, which he hoped would change his life for the better. He was going to build his own zoo: a wide, open space with a park for animals to roam, and offices and apartment blocks that looked over it. It didn't matter that the city was plagued with suicide attacks and kidnappings. In Abu Laith's mind, the development would be a lot like Dubai – slick skyscrapers and open lands on the bank of a mighty waterway, albeit the Tigris rather than the Persian Gulf.

As he gathered together his funds, wrenching money back from tight-fingered relatives and strong-arming investors, he had searched for a plot of land. He discovered that a large swathe of grassland on the eastern bank of the Tigris was for sale. There was already a zoo next door. To Abu Laith, the plan seemed fated to succeed, as long as the two businesses could combine into one large zoo. Once he had finished building the new development, he could buy the animals from the existing zoo, adding new ones if he needed to.

One bright morning, he went and spoke to the owner of the zoo, a rich man from Mosul known as Ibrahim, who lived in Erbil, a Kurdish city 50 miles to the east. Like most wealthy people from Mosul, Ibrahim hid his money, knowing it would be a magnet for kidnappers and spongers. When he travelled around Mosul, he went in a simple taxi. He wore poor-quality clothes, rather than fine suits. Abu Laith understood this, and understood how he could be of service.

'I know you can't be here to keep an eye on your business,' he told Ibrahim, when he went to see him. 'But I know animals, and I know Mosul. If we work together, I'll make sure your animals are looked after well. Then we'll expand it together, and we'll make some money.'

As it was, Abu Laith knew very well, the animals at Ibrahim's zoo were in a pitiful state. He had been to scout it out a few times, and had been appalled at what he saw. The bears – a Syrian brown bear called Lula and her mate, who wasn't called anything at all – were tetchy and worried by the fireworks that were set off to entertain visitors nearly every Friday evening near the zoo. The ponies were skinny, and the lions in their metal cages, about the size of a car, were bored and left roasting in the sun.

Abu Laith decided to step in and transform the lacklustre park into a proper zoo. With Ibrahim's blessing, he began to visit the animals after he finished at the repair shop. Abu Laith, despite never having been a zookeeper before, had spent his life preparing for the role. From hours of watching the National Geographic channel, a years-long obsession of his – it played uninterrupted in his Mosul home – and from owning dozens of pets, he had accrued zoological knowledge that he considered unparalleled. When he was unleashed on Ibrahim's zoo, it was as if a bomb had fallen from the sky. The zoo employees quickly learned to shuffle off when they saw the portly red-headed man stalking towards them. He would inevitably be getting ready to shout at them for not having cleaned the cages, or for feeding barley to the lions.

Excerpted from Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan. Copyright © 2020 by Louise Callaghan. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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