MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The man widely known as the savior of the Baghdad Zoo has died. Lawrence Anthony, a South African, worked to preserve land and wildlife through his conservation group, Earth Organisation. And in 2003, soon after the U.S. invasion of Baghdad, with looting rampant in the city, he rushed to save the animals at the zoo.
Anthony co-wrote a book about that adventure with his brother-in-law, Graham Spence. Spence told me today about the horrible damage to the zoo before Anthony arrived.
GRAHAM SPENCE: Everything except the lions and bears was actually just killed on the spot. You know, a lot of it went home to be eaten by families. I think it was just sort of a lot just the loose mentality going on. And the cages were wrecked, it was really devastated.
BLOCK: He was able though, in a fairly short period of time, to salvage what was left and with the help of the army and Iraqis, to really turn the zoo around.
SPENCE: Yes. At one stage, it was so bad, he thought the most humane thing to do would be just to take a gun and shoot all the animals, but the Iraqi zookeepers started coming back. They decided - let's see if they could actually save something and they did. They got through by buying donkeys. You know, you can argue the morality about killing an animal for another animal, but there were lots of donkeys and there were very few lions and there were only two bears.
So that's kind of how they kept things going until the American administration started supporting Lawrence and they rebuilt the whole thing. Today, it's a first class zoo, the best in the Middle East by a long way.
BLOCK: It's interesting. Your brother-in-law was not trained in conservation. He started out in insurance and real estate. What did he tell you about what drove him to become, ultimately, this leading figure in conservation?
SPENCE: Well, he grew up in Africa. He grew up loving the bush and his empathy was with animals. He certainly knew how to communicate with them.
BLOCK: Mr. Spence, your brother-in-law, Lawrence Anthony, was known as the elephant whisperer and I want to ask you about that. He had taken in, I gather, a herd of rogue elephants onto the game reserve that he owned and became very close with the herd. What can you tell us about his relationship with those animals?
SPENCE: Well, when they arrived, they were an extremely troubled herd and the leader of the herd, which he called Nana, was a maestro escape artist and kept breaking out. And eventually, the parks board, the game ranger said, if your herd break out once more, we're shooting them.
And Lawrence started talking to the elephants. He camped right outside the fence, which they could get through and just, whenever they started milling near the fence and looking like they were going to break out, he'd go talk to them and just say things like, listen, guys, if you leave here, you're going to be shot. Stay here. This is your home.
And, somehow, he got through to - you know, he was always a bit uncomfortable with the word elephant whisperer because he says they whispered more to him.
BLOCK: What was that connection like? How did they respond to him?
SPENCE: Whenever they heard his car, they would come up and then put their trunks through the window and touch him and he - when Nana had a baby, he actually walked that little picture a couple of miles up to the ranch house to show him to Lawrence.
BLOCK: Oh, to show him off.
SPENCE: It was an amazing bond that they had.
BLOCK: Huh. I've read, Mr. Spence - I don't know if this is true, you would want to think it's true - that after Lawrence died, the herd came to his house to say goodbye.
SPENCE: Yes. They came up that night and milled around the house. You can read into that what you like, but it's just uncanny. The night he died, they came back for the first time in a year and a half.
BLOCK: What explains that, do you think?
SPENCE: I think they came to say goodbye. Sometimes, there's things that you can't explain and maybe shouldn't even try and explain. They just are out there and I think this is one of them.
BLOCK: Well, Graham Spence, we're very sorry for your loss. Thanks for talking with us today.
SPENCE: Thank you. Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Graham Spence talking about his brother-in-law, conservationist Lawrence Anthony. He died earlier this month at the age of 61. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.