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MONTH: March 2008

Could the Giza Zoo become a rescue center?


CAIRO--Little changed in 117 years, the Giza Zoo is either the best of zoos or the worst of zoos, according to many noisy authorities, and may actually be a bit of both.

The animal collection is distinctly idiosyncratic and of little value from a conservation perspective, since most of the examples of rare species represent inbred genetic lines. Yet the zoo does include enough lions, elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes, and monkeys to satisfy most visitors. The animal care attracts far more complaints than the variety.

Much ridiculed by non-Egyptians, the exhibits of Rottweilers, Dobermans, German shepherds, and other dog breeds are of interest, albeit apparently declining, in a society where keeping pet dogs is still rare, cold climate breeds are seldom seen, and most dogs are rat-catchers and scavengers.

People, many of them elderly, who might never keep a dog from fear of landlord hostility or social ostracism come to feed and pet the zoo dogs. Most of the Giza Zoo is a gathering place for teenagers, but the quiet corner housing the dogs, ducks, and geese is something of a senior center.

The Giza Zoo is among the more enduring works of Khedive Ismail, who at age 33 in 1863 inherited the governance of Egypt as senior
representative of the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire. Khedive Ismail in 1869 opened the Suez Canal, 10 years after a French corporation began digging it, and in 1875 turned the canal over to the British government, who held it until 1956. Eventually alienating both France and Britain, Khedive Ismail was removed from office by the Ottomans in 1879. He went on to seek Egyptian independence from the Ottomans, fought the slave trade in Sudan, and opened the Giza Zoo on March 1, 1891, as his last major action in public life. He died four years later.

Eiffel bridge

Khedive Ismail copied the Giza Zoo style from Europe. He accentuated the European influence with an iron suspension bridge from which pedestrians could view animals from above, built by French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who had erected the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889.

The bridge may have been the first elevated viewing platform at any zoo, and was only one of many inovations. Beyond the bandstand and wrought iron railings, the Giza Zoo was like none in Europe. The curving landscaped paths and the long lakes in the middle resembled the grounds of a sultan's palace--and indeed, the zoo was adapted from the gardens of a summer palace that King Farouk's family continued to use for more than 50 years after the zoo debuted.

The animal accommodations were exceptionally spacious by European standards, featuring semi-natural habitat, an approach still seldom seen in Europe and only widely attempted in the U.S. toward the end of the 20th century.

The animal collection, emphasizing native Egyptian species both then and now, multiplied up to a claimed peak of 20,000 specimens, representing 400 species--of whom many appear to have been migratory birds, not permanent residents, who make the zoo a resting point and feeding station on their way between Europe, Central Asia, and Africa.

The resident bird numbers are now diminished, following a February 2006 outbreak of the avian influenza H5N1. After H5N1 was identified in six of 83 birds found dead on the grounds, the Giza Zoo veterinarians killed another 563 birds to try to eradicate H5N1 from
the collection.

Zoos featuring live animals long competed for attendance in the U.S. and Europe with museums of taxidermically mounted specimens, which could be visited comfortably in all weather, and offered models who held still in dramatic poses at a time when visitors more often
brought sketchbooks than cameras.

Khedive Ismail's successors in 1906 linked the zoo and museum concepts by opening a three-hall museum of natural history, making use of the remains of dead zoo specimens. Later the Farouk family stables and steeds were recycled into a pony-ride and carriage concession.

By the mid-20th century the Giza Zoo was widely acclaimed as one of the best in the world. But like much of the rest of Egypt, the zoo has had a hard time adapting to the pace of growth and change, as the human populations of Egypt and Cairo have increased 350% in 60 years.

"During my six years in Cairo, 1979-1986," recalls animal advocate Rosemary Tylka, who now lives in France, "I lived on Sharia adwan ibn Tabib," a street facing the zoo, "and had the pleasure of having the monkey island right outside my window. I woke to hear the elephants greeting the new day. Many times I found that my cats Ousama and Emira Nasr had made their way to the monkey cage by jumping on a tree and leaping in among the monkeys, and I had to walk to the entrance and back to the monkey island to retrieve them.

"The zoo was a fading glory architecturally, and there was some unnecessary prodding of the animals to amuse the crowds," Tylka remembers, "but from my perch, the animals I could see were pretty well balanced. Those I met personally, due to my constantly climbing up and down ladders to catch my cats, were more amused than suffering. One monkey looked at me as if were crazy, asking me why I went through all that trouble to rescue a stupid cat. Another monkey once offered me half of his apple."

Monkeys watch soccer

As the visitor traffic increased, descriptions of the conditions became more critical.

Wrote William F. Schmidt for The New York Times in March 1991, "One hundred years after its founding, Cairo's tired old zoo endures zs a victim of its own popular success, a place that draws such large and unruly crowds that the zookeepers must sometimes hide the znimals. The zoo is one of Cairo's last urban refuges,"
Schmidt explained, "a green if somewhat tattered oasis sprawling over 81 acres of shaggy grass, palm groves, and banyan trees. During its centennial season, like other years, the zoo expects to draw more than six million visitors. The Bronx Zoo, by comparison, draws only about 2.5 million visitors annually, and is twice as big.

"While some visitors come to look at the animals," Schmidt assessed, in a description that could have been written yesterday, "most seem to regard the zoo more as a sprawling park and picnic area, an open-air preserve of lagoons and looping walkways that just happens to also be the home of Nadia the elephant, Saeed the hippopotamus, and Aziz the sea lion."

Although the zoo entrance fee has increased tenfold since 1991, it is still only the equivalent of about 25¢ U.S.

As when Schmidt wrote, teens fill the Giza Zoo, visiting, listening to music, and making discreet use of the chance to meet, in an otherwise closely chaperoned society. There is little privacy. Nothing goes on that hundreds of others cannot observe. By American or European standards, the atmosphere is chaste and sedate--except for the rowdy sidewalk soccer games played mostly in front of the monkey cages. Three games were going on at once when ANIMAL PEOPLE visited in December 2007. Spectators stood on three sides of each game, with the monkey cages forming the fourth boundary. Most of the monkeys were enthusiastic observers, whose behavior suggested that at least some of them understand the significance of goals, saves, and stealing the ball--or at least enjoy cheering when the humans do. They seemed unperturbed when errant kicks bounced balls off their grillwork, but disappointed when the games broke up at closing time.

The Giza Zoo appears to be much the same now as when Tylka and Schmidt were familiar with it, during the tenure of director Mohammed Hussein Amer. The regime of his successor Moustafa Awad. 1995-2003, drew much harsher notices. Appointed by then-minister of agriculture and land reclamation Youssef Wally, Awad brought to the job little relevant background and a tendency toward self-promotion. An obsequious account of Awad's deeds by Hoda Nassef of the Egyptian Mail, published in December 2002, asserted that as result of Awad's work, "One day will not be enough to visit the zoo. It needs really a seven-day visit to see all...The beauty of the garden extends on into the night," Nassef enthused. "After the gates are closed, after dark, strings of beautiful multi-coloured beaded lights adorn the trees in forms of waterfalls, and soft hidden spotlights of different hues are placed around and throughout the zoo grounds."

Besides hanging Christmas tree lights, Awad according to Nassef resolved drainage problems that caused backwash from the Nile River to clog the zoo canals with debris, resulting in stagnation and sporadic stench--but the problem again made headlines in 2006.

Awad purportedly eliminated an accumulation of garbage on the zoo grounds, also again noted in 2006; expanded the space available to the lions, apparently by reopening access to the field of high grass behind their night cages that the original design suggests they were meant to have all along; added educational facilities and a playground donated by Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak in 1997; and got as far as building the foundation for an animal hospital.

Awad also enlarged the taxidermy collection. Toward the end of Awad's directorship, controversy arose over the longtime zoo practice of accepting donations of lame or injured working animals for slaughter to feed the lions and other carnivores. The "donations" reputedly came mainly from police, who impounded the animals of semi-literate peasants who ventured into parts of Cairo where animal-drawn vehicles are banned to help reduce traffic congestion. So many arrived at times that some waited weeks to be killed, allegedly with inadequate care. This was described as keeping the animals in quarantine to ensure their health before slaughter.

An "R. Chandler, tourist 2002-2003," in January 2003 posted an extensive rebuttal of Awad's claims, as amplified by Nassef. The only education going on at the Giza Zoo, Chandler asserted, was in "stabbing, poking, starving, abusing and killing captive animals for baksheesh." The buildings for stuffed specimens were enlarged, Chandler alleged, because so many live animals were dying of abuse and neglect.

Wrote visitor Maya Fawzy to ANIMAL PEOPLE and the World Society for the Protection of Animals in August 2002, "I think there were around 20 foxes in one tiny cage, suffering from overcrowding, heat and dehydration. The lions were so hungry, thirsty and sick that they could not move. The elephants were dirty and dehydrating and all they were given was dirty hay, which they kept throwing over their backs to cool off. The hippos could hardly be seen, as their water was extremely dirty. There was a polar bear in a cage alone with a small pond to swim in and a shower of water, which in the Cairo heat is not enough. The grizzly bears were in a cage with not much space to move around. Most of the monkeys were caged with hardly anything to climb on."

Similar criticisms were amplified by Born Free Foundation founder Virginia McKenna and Julie Wartenberg, then representing the International Fund for Animal Welfare, now the founder of Animal Care in Egypt. Wartenberg remembers that her involvement with the Cairo Zoo first sparked her interest in working in Egypt.

WSPA fixed feral cats

WSPA had already tried to help. "WSPA became involved with the Giza Zoo back in 2000," recalls WSPA North African representative Nick De Souza. "The management requested assistance to control the feral cat population. The zoo has a large number of vets, so I introduced them to mass sterilization and held a training course for the younger vets. WSPA provided sufficent material, drugs and equipment to theoretically sterilize 1,000 cats. The idea was to keep the project going for a few years. Monitoring the project was left to the zoo management. The vets rapidly used up the ketamine on other species," but told then-WSPA international projects director John Walsh that they had sterilized 500 cats.

"WSPA did not revisit the zoo for about a year after the cat project," De Souza told ANIMAL PEOPLE, "but when I went back, there
seemed to be fewer cats and definitely fewer kittens. The problem is there was no true survey carried out pre-intervention. Even more worrying is that it is not clear how the reduction, if it occurred, was achieved."

Counting cats while observing other aspects of the zoo, ANIMAL PEOPLE estimated the current population as comparable to that of the surrounding residential neighborhoods: up to 120 cats per square kilometer."Re the zoo itself," De Souza remembers,"when WSPA first became involved the management was very anti-foreign involvement.

After agriculture minister Youseff Wally was sacked, Moustafa Awad also got the boot and since then the attitude has been a lot more cooperative. "The position of director has changed a couple of times in the last few years, " De Souza said, "but each time I engage in dialogue with the zoo management their main question is can I help them regain membership in recognized zoological societies. As WSPA has an anti-zoo policy, it is very difficult for me to help them with this. I do however believe that linking Cairo with one of the good zoological societies would be the best way forward for improving animal welfare."

Keepers work for tips

Before that can happen, the Giza Zoo must become able to meet accreditation standards. That will require a complete change of the zoo modus operandi, beginning with learning to raise the funds needed to pay the staff enough to abolish the custom of keepers working for tips. This practice tends to erode the credibility of the keepers on every other subject. E-mailed Laine Strutton of San Diego on January 15, 2008, to Society for Protecting Animal Rights in Egypt founder Amina Abaza, "I was not mentally prepared to see the lions in cramped cement cells with little room to move...clearly underfed and a few were emaciated. I was disturbed to see their handlers prodding them with sticks to make them roar for children. I was told by Egyptians that they are kept underfed so that they don't fight back against their handlers, and that their handlers actually eat most of the meat that is supposed to go to the lions. Some are kept inside where they get no sunlight. Their cells smell of fecal matter and appear to never be cleaned. "Unfortunately," Strutton added, "I did not see the conditions until after I had paid for a photo with a baby cub. Three cubs are kept hidden away indoors in a cement cell and tourists pay to have their picture taken with them. Does anyone in Egypt even know these cubs exist?"

Agreed Emad Shenouda, "I'm an Egyptian who lives in Cairo, a father of two children. It is not a zoo, it is an animal torture camp, managed by a group of ignorant animal guards, who know nothing than of taking tips from parents so that children can feed the animals." Shenouda said he had seen lions being prodded with an iron bar.

"I recently visited the Cairo zoo and saw how confined the lions are," affirmed another American, Joyce Iskander. "When I was taken to see the lion cubs," for a tip, "I was shocked at the way these little babies were treated, at only 4 or 5 months old. They are kept in a very small wooden box with no light, tightly confined, and only dragged out to be held by other people or to be fed."

Some of the frequent criticisms could be debated. Many visitors, for example, fail to notice the guillotine doors that are used to rotate compatible groups of lions from the night house where they are fed to the exercise yard, where the lions on furlough tend to be almost invisible amid the tall grass. U.S. and European zoo-goers seldom see lions on exhibit who are as old as some of the Giza Zoo collection appear to be; are used to seeing lions who have bulked up against much colder climates than they occupy in nature; and are often unaware that lions in nature tend to make a kill, gorge on meat while it lasts, and then go several days without killing and eating again. Not eating every day is normal for lions. But so long as the keepers work for tips, the abuses associated with tip-collecting will continue, and the keepers will have correspondingly little credibility when they assert that other perceived abuses are not always what they seem.

"When I was an Egyptian Society of Animal Friends board member, they always assured us these practices would stop. We gave the zookeepers lectures and incentives, but nothing ever changes," fumes Cairo activist Susie Nassar.

SPARE founder Amina Abaza expresses similar frustration. "Not less than 10 articles in the first pages of the national newspapers in 2007 attacked the zoo after scandals happened there," recalls Abaza. "All the pressure, press articles, and scandals had no effect."

But Egyptian Society of Animal Friends president Ahmed El Sherbiny takes a more optimistic view. ESAF initiated a series of three-day training programs for the Giza Zoo staff in early 2007, El Sherbiny recounts. Each day-long session was attended by about 20 of the
60 keepers, while the other 40 remained at their posts. Each session was repeated three times so that the whole staff could benefit.

El Sherbiny told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the keepers seemed quite eager to learn, but that the basic problem remains that they are paid just a fraction of a living wage. They therefore have to work for tips. "Due to ESAF's recommendations," El Sherbiny said, "the zoo entrance fees have been raised from 25 piasters to one Egyptian pound. This alone is a huge achievement." Also, "A monkey enclosure has been enlarged and designed to contain a large tree, which supplies a suitable structure for the monkeys to climb."

But El Sherbiny acknowledged considerable inertia. "Many of our recommendations have not been given consideration," he said. "We are strongly suggesting privatizing the zoo in order for the necessary improvement to be made."

Removing the zoo from governmental management, El Sherbiny believes, will result in direction by experienced personnel, rather than political appointees, and will enable the zoo to raise the funds needed to operate acceptably.

Egyptian Association for Environment and Community Services founder Suhaila El Sawy has argued that the zoo should establish a trust fund to finance improvements, including removing a karaoke concession, Awad's Christmas tree lights, and other attractions that interfere with the purposes of operating a zoo and botanical garden.

El Sawy also favors confining food consumption to a single picnic area, "causing less noise and clutter and making the place overall cleaner because it is easier to tidy and scrub one big allocated area than the entire zoo," she told freelance writer Shaimaa Fayed in 2006.

Animal Welfare Awareness Research Group of Egypt coordinator Dina Zulficar recently proposed that Egyptian animal advocates should organize an annual fundraising event, "from which the annual income would be directed to revitalizing the zoo, including zoo employees conditions."

Redefining mission

Somewhere along the way the Giza Zoo mission may need to be redefined. The Giza Zoo has survived as the popular cultural institution that Khedive Ismail envisioned, albeit drifting from the educational focus he intended. But the Giza Zoo has never managed to successfully emulate the European and American zoo focus on endangered species conservation, despite some success at captive breeding to replenish its own collection and facilitate trading animals with other zoos.

To try to win back major zoo association accreditation might result in having to replace most of the present animal collection with scarcer specimens and animals of more genetically diverse lineage. Instead, the Giza Zoo might most easily evolve into a wildlife rescue center similar to the growing network of rescue centers operating on the premises of major Indian zoos under the umbrella of the Indian Central Zoo Authority, profiled in the April 2007 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.

A step in that direction came in August 2007, when the Giza Zoo accepted 265 baby crocodiles who were confiscated at the Cairo international airport from a Saudi man who claimed to be a collector for a "scientific institute."

Traffickers moving animals from Africa to Europe and Asia have made Cairo a frequent waystation in recent years. As interdiction of
the traffic becomes more successful, there will be increasing need for a wildlife rescue center capable of taking in almost any species on short notice.

That could be the Giza Zoo, perhaps with volunteer help recruited from among the many young visitors.

--Merritt Clifton