Altar of Eden By James Rollins

The story starts outside Baghdad Zoo immediately after the Battle of Baghdad. After being decimated during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the floodgates have been opened for the smuggling of hundreds of exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles to Western nations. However, this crime hides a deeper secret. Years later, a Louisiana state veterinarian, Lorna Polk, is flown to a wrecked fishing trawler in the Mississippi River delta basin by the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The crew is missing, but the boat holds a live cargo: a caged group of exotic animals. Initially, Polk assumes it to be part of a black market smuggling racket. Then she discovers disturbing deformities that make no sense. Also, they all share disturbingly heightened intelligence. To uncover the truth about the origin of this strange cargo and the threat it poses, Polk must team up with a man who shares a dark and bloody past with her, now an agent with the CBP.

From the book

"The two boys stood outside the lion’s cage.
“I don’t want to go inside,” the smaller one said. He kept close to his older brother and clasped tightly to his hand. The two were bundled in jackets too large for their small forms, faces swathed in scarves, heads warmed by woolen caps. At this early hour, with the sun not yet up, the predawn chill had crept down to their bones. They had to keep moving. “Bari, the cage is empty. Stop being a shakheef. Look.” Makeen, the older of the two, pushed the black iron gate wider and revealed the bare concrete walls inside. A few old gnawed bones lay piled in a dark corner. They would make a nice soup. Makeen stared out at the ruins of the zoo. He remembered how it had once looked. Half a year ago, for his twelfth birthday, they had come here to picnic at the Al-Zawraa Gardens with its amusement‑park rides and zoo. The family had spent a long warm afternoon wandering among the cages of monkeys, parrots, camels, wolves, bears. Makeen had even fed one of the camels an apple. He still remembered the rubbery lips on his palm. Standing here now, he"

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