Father of Lions Cover

Father of Lions

One Man’s Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo

Louise Callaghan

Forge Books, New York, 2020, 400 pages

Book Review published on: December 11, 2020

When one thinks of the 2016-2017 Battle of Mosul or the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate, “feel good” stories don’t readily come to mind. Fortunately, Louise Callaghan has provided us one with her book Father of Lions: One Man’s Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo. This easy page-turner provides a peek into life in IS-occupied Mosul through the eyes of a lifelong animal lover, Abu Laith. You will quickly begin to root for him as he tries to save the lives of the animals in the Mosul Zoo, specifically Zombie the lion and Lula the bear.

Abu Laith is a gregarious mechanic and animal lover. His veterinarian skills are self-taught by way of National Geographic. The book tells the story of his journey to avoid IS imprisonment and/or execution and save the Mosul Zoo animals. With the help of his children and the kindness of his neighbors, Abu Laith does just enough to keep Zombie and Lula alive before their dramatic rescue by Dr. Amir, an animal rescue veterinarian, and eventual relocation to South Africa and Jordan.

The book is not a tale of just feeding and caring for these animals, rather the reader sees the life and death decisions that Abu Laith makes as he is forced to abandon the animals, eventually moving them, building a makeshift zoo, and feeding them garbage scraps, all while dodging mortar fire, IS execution squads, and the dismay and disbelief of his own family. One can grasp the fear that the residents of Mosul experienced as their lives and freedoms were strangled by the IS occupation. Yet amazingly, they maintained compassion for the zoo animals and each other.

Flashbacks help provide background for Abu Laith, and the reader quickly grasps the strong bond between him and Zombie, a lion he raised from a cub. Through disease, death, and, at times despair, you find yourself cheering for them all to escape the horror of IS occupation. The end of the book tells of the dramatic rescue of Zombie and Lula and a comedy of errors as they escape from the grasp of the zoo owner and are trucked to freedom in Erbil, courtesy of Dr. Amir and the Four Paws Animal Rescue Organization.

This is a good read for anyone interested in a different side of life under the IS caliphate but also for those who have a bond with animals and can relate to what one would go through to save an animal’s life. This book isn’t just a story of an animal rescue. It is the story of an amazing man and his relentless pursuit for a happy life in an otherwise horrific place.

Book Review written by: Col. Robert A. Law III, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas