Could the Giza Zoo become a rescue center?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2008:
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
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

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
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
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 Radwan 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

Monkeys watch soccer

As the visitor traffic increased,
descriptions of the conditions became more
Wrote William F. Schmidt for The New York
Times in March 1991, “One hundred years after
its founding, Cairo’s tired old zoo endures as a
victim of its own popular success, a place that
draws such large and unruly crowds that the
zookeepers must sometimes hide the animals. 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
“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 25ยข 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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
That could be the Giza Zoo, perhaps with
volunteer help recruited from among the many
young visitors.

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