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Animal rescuer Lawrence Anthony dies

Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, known as

Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, known as "The Elephant Whisperer," died March 2, 2012. He Was 61. Newsday's obituary for Lawrence Anthony
Credit: Handout

Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist who charged into the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S. invasion of 2003 and led an animal rescue effort that united warring soldiers, mullahs and Iraqi civilians, died March 2 in Johannesburg. He was 61.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Francoise Malby-Anthony.

Anthony, a self-described "bush child" with no formal training in zoology, spent the better part of his life trying to shelter wild animals from the ravages of human conflict.

In the mid-1990s, after forays into insurance sales and real estate development, he bought a private game reserve about a two-hour drive from Durban. He founded an environmental group, called the Earth Organization, and convinced neighboring Zulu tribes to put aside their differences where African animals were concerned.

Years later, Anthony muscled his way into diplomatic negotiations with the Lord's Resistance Army, the militant group from northern Uganda that is led by accused war criminal Joseph Kony. Appealing to local tribal beliefs, Anthony convinced the rebels not to kill the endangered northern white rhinoceros, which lived in the dense forest under the group's control.

On his own land, Anthony took in and tamed a herd of wild elephants that otherwise would have been killed. For that feat, he became known as "the elephant whisperer."

Anthony was on his reserve -- called Thula Thula, or "peace and tranquillity" in the Zulu language -- when the United States led coalition forces into Iraq in March 2003 to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Watching the invasion on CNN, Anthony thought immediately of the Baghdad Zoo.

"I couldn't stand the thought of the animals dying in their cages," he told the Observer newspaper in England. "I couldn't get any support from anybody so I thought, I'll just go. I went there for the animals." A U.S. soldier later told Anthony that, other than journalists, he was among the first civilians to enter Baghdad after the invasion.

He went into the city with two Kuwaiti zookeepers and found that the situation was far more dire than he had expected. Only 35 of the zoo's 650 animals were alive, he later told reporters. The others had been sold on the black market or killed by looters.

In those harrowing circumstances, Anthony said, "something amazing happened." Iraqis, coalition forces and members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard found a common cause: the animals. Local mullahs, or clerical leaders, put out the order that the work was not to be disrupted.

"We had Republican Guard soldiers working with American troops in the zoo two weeks after they were killing each other," Anthony told the Observer.

Together, the workers scoured the city for surviving animals and carried camels and ostriches back to the zoo on Humvees and armored vehicles. Anthony personally rescued pet lions from the abandoned palace of Saddam's son Uday Hussein.

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