Sambu, the Kabul Zoo's Asiatic black bear, was almost as shell-shocked as her city. Her nose was infected and bloody from attacks by abusive visitors, and she was too wary of humans to let anyone close enough to treat her. At first John Walsh would lure her to the bars of her cage with an apple so he could apply medication to her nose. Then "she wised up and took the apple with her paw," says Walsh, before scurrying out of reach, so he switched to enticing her with a pile of peanuts on the ground. And as workers removed debris from the compound to give the bear room to roam, Walsh was hopeful her spirits would be revived. Soon, says Walsh, "she'll be in a paradise!"

The Kabul Zoo was anything but when Walsh, 61, and his team of rescuers from the World Society for the Protection of Animals arrived in the battered Afghan capital in January. Only about 35 of the 300 animals that populated the 100-acre zoo a decade ago remained. An artillery shell had killed Hathi the elephant during civil war in the early '90s; the Taliban, who took power in 1996, left the zoo open but slashed funding. Walsh has tended to parasite-ridden birds and monkeys so used to stone-throwing tormentors, he says, "they just want to grab your hand and bite it."

Armed with $40,000 in aid from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, Walsh, the WSPA's international projects director, scrambled to nurse the creatures back to health with much-needed medicine, daily feedings and occasional extraordinary measures—like mouth-to-beak resuscitation for an ailing eagle hawk. The first aid didn't stop there. Walsh restored electricity and running water, spruced up bullet-riddled buildings and reinstated salaries for Afghan staffers who hadn't been paid in six months. "John's the one you want in a disaster area," says WSPA field officer Juan Carlos Murillo, 34. "He knows what to say to get things done."

The Newton, Mass., native not only loves animals—as a teen, he recalls, "I used to take my pet raccoon with me on dates, whether the girls liked it or not"—he has risked his life for them. On his first WSPA mission in 1964 he helped rescue more than 9,000 monkeys, ocelots and other species from flooding in Suriname—including a jaguar he jumped into a raging river to scoop up. He has aided animals injured by Gulf War oil fires and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. "He was shot at in Bosnia," says Joyce, 60, his wife of 22 years. "He lost a kidney [to dehydration] in Peru. But this is important work, and he does it so well I can't imagine him not doing something."

The couple, who have no children, live in Lakeville, Mass., with their two dogs and six turkeys. Walsh admits he fears for the Kabul animals' future despite the AZA's $360,000 funding to support continuing operations under the supervision of a senior curator from the London Zoo. Attendance at the zoo—including a daily handful of once-banned women visitors—has already skyrocketed. Says Gerardo Huertas, 42, a WSPA veterinarian: "People need some distraction from the destruction, some hope."

Walsh still grieves for one animal he couldn't save—Marjan, the zoo's elderly lion, who had lost his left eye in 1994 to a grenade. When Marjan died Jan. 26 at about age 25, he had medical care and a warm den for the first time in years. And to Walsh it was worth the effort. "One day we're all going to show up at the pearly gates, and St. Peter will be there," he says. "But no one's ever seen St. Peter. How do you know he's not a blind old lion?"

Samantha Miller
Nina Biddle in Kabul and Ashley Williams in London

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Ashley Williams.