Giza Zoo in Cairo is beset by poverty, tear gas and suspicious animal deaths

CAIRO — The giraffe committed suicide, an Egyptian newspaper reported. And the government pulled a former zoo director out of retirement to deal with the resulting media storm.

“The problem is with the press,” Nabil Sedki said on a recent afternoon, taking a deep drag on his cigarette as he settled into a giraffe-patterned armchair in his office. He was five days into the job. “The media fabricated the suicide.”

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The giraffe in question was a 3-year-old named Roqa, who, Sedki said, inadvertently hanged herself earlier this month after getting tangled in a wire inside her enclosure.

The state has launched three investigations — one purely forensic, another by the government’s official veterinary body and a third by a legal committee — “to see who will hang instead of the giraffe,” Sedki said with a wry laugh.

Zoos are prone to bad publicity, especially when something goes wrong. The government-run Giza Zoo, in the heart of Egypt’s chaotic capital, may be particularly susceptible, given the country’s floundering economy, the tumult of nearby political demonstrations and an overall poor track record in animal care.

In May, three black bears died in a single night under mysterious circumstances. Zoo authorities called it a bear “riot.” In 2007 and in 2008, local media reported that zookeepers were slaughtering the park’s camels for meat — to eat themselves, and to sell to other hungry Egyptians.

And this month, the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that Roqa had committed suicide. The article went viral. (The same newspaper reported in August that the giraffes and other large animals at the zoo were so troubled by Egypt’s ongoing political unrest — especially the chants of protesters from the Muslim Brotherhood in a nearby public square — that they had been mulling suicide for a while.)

“Is there anyone who actually believes that this giraffe committed suicide?” Sedki asked. As he spoke, a fresh, stinging cloud of tear gas wafted in through an open doorway, and the thudding blasts of tear-gas cannons could be heard from the latest clashes between student protesters and police at neighboring Cairo University.

The campus is just northwest of the 122-year-old zoo, the biggest and oldest of Egypt’s seven zoological parks. On its north flank, just outside the zoo’s main gate, is Nahda Square, which served as a permanent protest encampment for supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi for more than a month in the summer. Police used bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters in August, killing scores of people.

When police fire tear gas at protesters, the irritating vapors inevitably make their way toward the animal enclosures, compelling zookeepers to wrap their faces in scarves on the worst of days. It has gotten to the animals, too, Sedki said.

“The sounds of the bullets and the tear gas affect the animals,” Sedki said. Some of the large animals, such as lions and hippos, have displayed “restlessness and tension,” he said.

Sedki said zoo authorities had moved some of the animals to different enclosures but found that they had few good options, given that all 80 acres of the zoo are bordered by roaring traffic and gritty urban sprawl.

For that same reason, Egyptians see the zoo as a rare — if dilapidated and underfunded — oasis of green. It costs about 70 cents (5 Egyptian pounds) to enter. Families bring picnics and set up camp for the entire day on the grassy medians. Couples stroll hand in hand, and bands of giggling teenagers roam.

“I know that in the West, going to the zoo is like going to a museum — you go to get knowledge,” Sedki said. “But here, they come to visit a garden, not a zoo.”

Animal rights activists — themselves a rare breed in Egypt — have long been concerned about conditions at Giza, which echo the nation’s widespread poverty and bureaucratic failings after decades of authoritarianism and turmoil.

“This is not a zoo,” said Mona Khalil, a founder of the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals, which runs two shelters and provides free veterinary care to poor farmers on Cairo’s outskirts. “This is hell for animals.”

Many of the zoo’s employees earn less than $60 a month, activists say, and have little experience or training and even less incentive to protect the animals they care for. Instead, the employees follow visitors over the zoo’s muddy and potholed paths, offering scattered “facts” about the animals’ daily lives or an opportunity to get closer to them — in the hope that it will yield tips.

On a recent afternoon, some keepers touted the chance to hold a lion cub — or, if the visitor would prefer it, a monkey or a baby crocodile — for the equivalent of about $3.60.

Adult lions, cramped in iron-barred cages that resembled the circus pens of an earlier era, crunched on animal carcasses, as visitors used their cellphones to take pictures. Hippos and pelicans drifted through murky water. And a sickly black bear watched as a pair of stray cats hunched over its food dish.

“Anyone want a picture with a baby lion? Anyone want a picture with a baby lion?” an employee droned as he stood next to a row of cages, a camera around his neck.

Another zookeeper gestured toward a rhinoceros that was nosing around in the shade of some trees. “Her husband died six months ago,” the keeper said in a cheerful, casual tone. “She killed him with her horn.” Without further explanation, the keeper quickly walked away.

No one in the zoo’s administrative office was quite sure how many animals are kept on the premises. Staff members searched through files in the high-ceilinged administrative headquarters — a building full of binders, and apparently devoid of computers — but were able to find figures only from 2009: 78 species of mammals, 82 species of birds and 26 species of reptiles — for a total of 4,631 individual animals.

Of those, about “forty-something” are lions, Sedki said.

In 2010, the zoo began to separate most of its forty-something lions by sex — an effort to stem the skyrocketing population. Meat is pricey, and space is limited.

To cope, many of the big cats are packed two per cage. They eat mostly donkey carcasses, zookeepers said, and they “fast” one day a week.

 
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