While it's no secret that the Giza Zoo is hardly a safe or healthy environment for animals - or people for that matter - Eihab Boraie decided to see for himself just how bad it is. What he saw, heard and was offered may shock you...
Egyptians have always shared a long and important history with animals; since the Pharaonic days, animals were revered, respected and were even mummified alongside kings. The very first known ‘zoo’ was actually established in Egypt, dating back to 1500 BCE, by decree of Queen Hatshepsut. As the millennia wore on, this ideology has drastically changed. Attitudes and behaviour towards animals have become uglier, and hearts seem to have grown colder. Once an ancient empire that showed respect to animals, Egypt has now become a country that hosts one of the world’s cruelest zoos.
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration; if you type ‘world’s worst zoos’ in Google, you will find a myriad of links to various lists that share the opinion that Giza Zoo is literally a travesty to animal rights. Type in ‘Giza Zoo’ and you will find one horror story after another about the dreadful, unsanitary conditions in which its captives are abused. From gorillas killed for being suspected of having Ebola, to birds dying of avian flu and to more recently a giraffe dying from anxiety, there are plenty of reasons to shut down this torture camp.
Thus far, I have avoided the zoo, but being five minutes away from our office, I headed there to see the conditions for myself. Upon arriving, I was approached by multiple photographers that promised to give me a special ‘behind the cages’ tour. Their desperation was of the same kind one can see in the eyes of the tour guides who wait idly at the foot of the pyramids. To understand how mishandled and abused the animals are, and get some insider insight, I (despite my absolute disgust) took one of these ‘tour guides’ to show me the grim reality.
Escorting me through this animal hell was an enthusiastic eight-year veteran photographer at the zoo named Yasser. As we proceeded to the lion cages, Yasser did his best to impress me with his knowledge about the park, telling me that the zoo is over 8 acres, and was once a private garden established over 300 years ago, transformed into a zoo by Khedive Ismail in 1891.
We entered the lion cages through a ‘secret’ door that took us on the wrong side of the iron bars. It was a scene straight out of a horror film, complete with rusted manacles hanging from walls. Yasser introduces me to El 7ag Metwally, the oldest lion in the zoo. “We have 65 African lions in the zoo. They are all the offspring of El 7ag Metwaly. El 7ag Metwaly has four lionesses he mates with, Karima, Mervat, Fatakat and 3enayat,” Yasser explains (mistakenly hoping that I would get the reference to the cult Egyptian show). I couldn’t pretend to be amused by the ‘quirky’ facts, when before me was a depressed and elderly 7ag missing most of its teeth; the very ouctyre of animal cruelty. For a measly 5LE to the lion keeper, and 20LE for the photo, patrons are given exclusive access, allowing them to take a photo. Yasser insisted I touch the lion’s mane from outside the cage. I reluctantly obliged and the first photos were not useable because I wasn’t smiling; as if anyone could muster a smile amidst the abysmal conditions and the despair that this majestic creature had obviously succumbed to.
Immediately following, I was taken to a room where one of the 7ag’s babies (Simba) was placed upon my lap, his neck forcibly held by the zookeeper. Mortified, I began inquiring after the health and feeding regimes of the lions. Yasser informed me that “a normal lion consumes 10 kilos of meat per day. They eat halal meat [beef] for three days and haram meat [donkey and horse meat] for three days. On the seventh day they don’t eat because lions are not accustomed to eating on a daily basis. Their stomachs need rest. El 7ag Metwally, however, eats 20 kgs of meat per day while his babies get 1kg/day.” When I asked if I could watch them feed the lions, to see if they are actually getting the allotted amount, Yasser immediately declines, refusing to show me (or my money) saying: “You can feed the camels, the deer and many other animals… but not the lions.”
The next stop on this nightmare was the elephant barracks. Yasser promises me that I will be able to put my head in its mouth, as though that was a photo op that everyone dreams of. The elephant they took me to see was restrained, a chain tightly coiled around its leg with little slack, forcing it to remain in place. For the same price as the lion photo shoot, I found my head being placed right in front of the elephant’s mouth. As we left, I thought I saw a mirrored expression of depression in the elephants’ and photographers’ eyes.
“Employees at the zoo make 500-600 EGP per month, while I rely solely on tips for photos,” Yasser informs me. With such low pay it becomes very obvious that these are not professional trainers, and couldn't care less about the animals’ well-being. How could they, when they don’t make enough to sustain a healthy family of their own? The sole difference between the two is that only one has freedom, though that too is a questionable assessment considering the current political climate.
“The animals live easy lives. They sit there being fed without a worry in the world. They don’t have to worry about money or anything. They get everything handed to them, while this caretaker doesn’t make enough money to last three days. He’s a married man with three kids. Of course it’s not enough. That’s why he has to get by taking a tips every now and then,“ Yasser continues.
This statement launched us into a back and forth argument about whether humans and animals deserve the same basic rights. Yasser tries to justify their imprisonment telling me that “these are animals and we are humans. God didn’t create us as animals because we are not slaves. God created us free. No matter what, humans will always need freedom. No money can replace your freedom.“ Disgusted by his answer, I ask why is our freedom more important than animals? To which he replied, “Because God preferred humans over animals, even though we are worse than animals. You never see a lion kill another lion. They kill deer maybe, but not each other. They could fight, yes, but they don’t kill each other... We are not human beings anymore, we’re even worse than the devil.“ Though lions and other animals may in fact kill, they do not expose other species to the sort of prolonged torture that we humans are wont to administer.
The final part of the tour was by far the worst experience of the day. Led into a dark, dilapidated room, I saw two cups of tea sitting in front of a handler and a peacock. Yasser gave orders to bring me the American eagle. Before long, the handler returned with the eagle. With its wings heavily mangled, the handler instructs me to grab the bird of prey by its wings. In my hands the eagle felt frail and uncomfortable and looked physically distressed. This time I refused to take another photo, and feeling nauseous, I pre-emptively ended the tour.
While waiting for the photos to be developed, Yasser tells me that zoo attendance has decreased by over 50% since the revolution. Obviously, that is a factor that can’t be overlooked, but more troubling is the fact that in 2004 the zoo lost its membership with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. I make the case to Yasser that the zoo needs to be shut down, which angered him. Defensively he tells me that the zoo can’t be shut down.
"The zoo can’t be shut down because that would cause Gamal Mubarak to sell the garden to Prince Walid Ibn Talal, who will turn this place into the next Four Seasons and ship all the animals to another zoo he’ll open in 6th of October. It’s not just a zoo… it is an antiquity. Selling this zoo is like saying you want to sell the pyramids. Let’s assume the pyramids made no profit for a few years because tourism was shot. Would you sell them? Where will all the poor people go during holidays if you sell this place? During the five days of 3eid we get a million visitors a day. That’s 5 million people. Where will they all go? Many of these people can’t afford to go anywhere with their family this is their only vacation," Yasser pleads.
One can understand the importance of having accessible and affordable public green spaces, but what I and many Egyptians cannot understand is the need to perpetuate the torture of innocent animals. ‘Zoo’ is an abbreviation of Zoology; meaning the study of animals. However, I assure you at no point did I see a vet (despite Yasser’s claims that there are 95 on staff), and the only education I got was in torture techniques. It stands in the heart of Cairo as a globally known institution of evil.
If we ever hope to change the way the world sees Egypt, then we should seriously consider sending the animals to animal reserves, and transforming the zoo into a beautiful park every Egyptian can enjoy. Everybody wins and we end this cycle of torture and if we must have a zoo, than at the very least we can clean it up and make sure it meets global standards for the treatment of animals.
The Giza Zoo is still a member of the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZAB). You can contact PAAZAB and demand that the Giza Zoo be expelled from the organisation unless it raises its animal welfare standards here, and contact PAAZAB’s executive director here.