Capt. Amy Cronin never had a pet. Before deploying to Iraq, she didn't even really know much about animals.
But in 15 months, Captain Cronin and her unit, the 15th Brigade Support Battalion, have gone from providing logistics and supplies to US troops to helping refurbish an animal clinic, building horse stables, and constructing new habitats for bears and porcupines at the Baghdad Zoo.
"It's really satisfying," says Cronin, from Boiling Springs, Pa. "Typically support soldiers don't get to interact with Iraqis as much as infantry would. And this gives me the satisfaction of seeing the direct results of my work."
That has included projects to resuscitate the zoo. In a lush 3-square-mile park in the heavily fortified Green Zone, it used be among the largest animal sanctuaries in the Middle East.
The zoo had received assistance from US civil affairs units, engineers, and international animal aid agencies since the US-led invasion of 2003. But some of the quarters for animals needed to be rebuilt and the park's aesthetics needed improvement before it could be turned into a haven where Baghdad residents could retreat from the violence on the streets.
"We're not making sure that people have water and other supplies [with this assignment], but we are making sure that people have a place to relax and have fun," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Vieira, the unit's commander.
Before the war, the zoo, located in Zawra Park, was home to more than 500 animals, officials said. Some of the animals escaped as mortar rounds slammed into the zoo during fighting between US troops and the Iraqi Republican Guard.
After the fighting subsided, many of the smaller and tamer animals, such as goats and pigs, were stolen for food. More exotic creatures, such as rare species of birds, were sold on the black market or smuggled out of the country.
The zoo reopened in July 2003, and most of the employees returned. But fewer than 100 animals remained.
"It needed medical supplies, and power generation was an issue," said Maj. David Shoupe, a public affairs officer with the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, which includes the 15th Brigade Support Battalion.
So when the battalion assumed zoo duty in April of this year, it brought several generators to ensure the electrical supply.
On an average day, about 200 visitors come to the park, zoo officials said. But during the holiday season, the number can surge to a million in a week.
Adil Salman Mousa, the zoo's director for 17 years, said the reason for the crowds can be summed up in one word: security. "This is the most important thing for visitors in the Baghdad area," he said. "This is the only place where Iraqis in Baghdad can breathe."
On a recent morning, Ali Abdul Hussein came to the zoo with a female friend because he said he wanted to find a place where they could stroll without fear of violence. "I feel safe here. I feel relaxed," said Hussein, a taxi driver, as his wandered past a newly renovated porcupine habitat, the latest of Cronin's renovation projects.