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Gift offer puts zoo in quandary

Mangy monkeys tremble as young Afghans rattle their cages with sticks. Eagles bake in the summer heat as they languish in small, smelly pens. A bear sits listlessly, an open sore on its nose left untreated.

China is preparing to send more animals to Kabul's dilapidated zoo, but some experts say conditions there need to be improved before subjecting newcomers to such hardships.

Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which has coordinated an international relief effort to restore the zoo after years of war and neglect, says the time is not ripe for the Chinese gift.

"It's way too early for that," she said. "They can barely shelter the animals they have left, let alone feed them."

The Chinese offer _ two lions, a wolf, five white chickens, bears, deer, blue peacocks and wild pigs _ is generous, she said, but there is no place to put the animals.

But the chief of the zoo, eager to restore one of the few places in the Afghan capital designed for amusement, said Saturday he has enough facilities to handle more animals.

"A Chinese delegation, including their ambassador (to Kabul), recently visited the zoo and they saw that everything here is according to international standards," said Omar Shir. "The Chinese promised to ship the animals soon."

The Kabul Zoo gets about 100 visitors a day. They wander along the cracked cement walkway that meanders through the sad collection of cages, most of them empty.

Life is tough for the remaining animals. Food is scarce, their cages are small and dirty, the heat is too much for many of them. But their biggest source of discomfort might be young Afghans who seem to take pleasure in tormenting the beasts.

Shir proudly displays a bundle of letters and drawings by American children moved by Marjan's suffering. He also has photocopies of checks _ ranging from $25 to $745 _ from donors, mostly children, in the United States.

"Yes, all this money was sent, but we never received it," said Shir, blaming Afghanistan's nonexistent banking system. "Who knows who actually collected that money?"