BAGHDAD: A dozen fluffy white kittens with piercing blue eyes frolic in a wire cage, perched perilously atop a pen containing two African lion cubs. Neighborhood schoolchildren stop to feed sunflower seeds to a chained monkey, while three red foxes cower in their curbside enclosure from the street noise.
Iraqis can get just about whatever animals they want, whether as pets, novelties or status symbols or for a private zoo — and as violence subsides many are stocking up at Baghdad’s several pet markets.
The lack of government regulation means animals like lions and crocodiles are going home with people unequipped to take care of them.
"There is no wildlife legislation here in Iraq, and that is what encourages these kinds of dealers to export and import wild species," said Omar Fadil, of the conservation organization Nature Iraq.
"Do people have the ability to raise a lion in their home, or a vulture or a pelican?" he said. "There is a big gap in understanding wildlife in Iraq. They take it as a cub but after it becomes big and starts to attack people I don’t know where the animal goes, and the concern is that they’re killing them."
Crowds flock to the exotic animal market in northwestern Baghdad, which doubles as a zoo for neighborhood families.
There is no fee to go in and look at the scores of animals — pelicans, peacocks, wolves, cats, monkeys, a porcupine, an owl, bear cubs and a dizzying array of dogs — and for the right price, you can take any one of them home with you. For about $8 you can have a duckling or a bunny; for $6,000 one of the lion cubs.
Another major open-air pet market about 3 miles (5 kilometers) away used to be targeted regularly by insurgents. But crowds there have now grown from about 4,000 to double that every Friday when the market is held, Fadil said. Rich sheiks who used to spend their time hunkered down in their heavily fortified compounds now buy exotic pets to entertain themselves. More private zoos are sprouting up as well.
Many animals are likely being illegally imported into Iraq with forged papers or bribes to border officials, Fadil said.
The government acknowledges the problem, but an immediate solution is unlikely, said Environment Ministry official Ziad Ameer Salman.
Current laws governing wildlife date back to the 1970s or earlier, and under the regime of Saddam Hussein many dealers were given permits to sell wild animals, which are still valid.
The Agriculture Ministry this year proposed a new conservation law, but it has taken a back seat to March’s inconclusive elections, the transfer of security from American to Iraqi forces and scores of other issues, Salman said.
"We need a strong legislation and a strong law," he said. "But we need time because the members of parliament are changing, the government of Iraq is changing."
These are common problems in any unstable country devastated by war where law enforcement authorities have a difficult enough time trying to protect people, let alone animals, said Leigh Henry, senior policy officer on species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund.
She cited examples in Afghanistan, where the WWF discovered snow leopard pelts were being exported, and Congo, where troops were illegally killing hippos to eat and to sell their teeth as ivory.
"Wildlife is often seen as a status symbol, and where wealth and opportunity exist, people will collect — whether it be reptiles, big cats, great apes, or rare orchids," she said.
At the pet market, store owner Sabah Al-Azawi said he gets his animals from all around the country, though primarily from northern Iraq. Some are brought in from outside — the lion cubs came in from Turkey for example — but Al-Azawi said he doesn’t ask questions about their provenance.
"This is not my business," he said.
Though the cages at his store are cramped, they are all are shaded and regularly cleaned, the animals are given a plentiful supply of water, and none of them appeared to be endangered species. He said a vet regularly checks the animals, and when he sells an exotic pet to someone he gives detailed instructions on how to care for it.
Scores of neighborhood children and others come by daily to gawk.
"We come here every day when we have some extra time. My family got our dog here," said 13-year-old Mohammad Marwan, who stopped by for a visit recently on his way to school.
Al-Azawi said that for him, running the shop is not about getting rich.
"This is my hobby, just to be among these animals I am happy," Al-Azawi said after climbing into the lions’ cage to feed them ground beef out of his hands.
Still, he said everything is for sale, including two 5-foot-long (1.5-meter-long) Nile crocodiles he keeps at home.
"I got them for myself, but anyone who comes through I say ‘I have a crocodile in my house,’ and I’ll sell it to him if the deal is good," he said. –Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this story.