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Cairo zoo beset by tales of ‘giraffe suicide’ and ‘bear riots’

The Washington Post

A 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 a cigarette as he settled into a giraffe-patterned armchair in his office. He was five days into the job. “The media fabricated the suicide.”

The deceased animal in question was a 3-year-old giraffe named Roqa, who inadvertently hanged herself in early December after getting tangled in a wire inside her enclosure, Sedki said.

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 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 again in 2008, local media reported that zookeepers were slaughtering the camels for meat — to eat themselves and to sell to other hungry Egyptians.

And this month, the daily Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported that Roqa had committed suicide. The article went viral.

“Is there anyone who actually believes that this giraffe committed suicide?” Sedki asked one recent day. 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 police and student protesters at neighboring Cairo University.

The campus is located 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 President Mohammed Morsi last summer.

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.

He said zoo authorities had moved some of the animals to different enclosures but found they had few good options, given that all 32 hectares 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 around 73 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.

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.

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 — in the hope that it will yield tips.

No one in the zoo’s administrative office was quite sure how many animals are kept on the premises.

In 2010, the zoo began to separate most of the lions by gender in an effort to stem its skyrocketing lion population. Meat is pricey, and space is limited.

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