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Cairo Zoo Mired in the 19th Century

Wildlife: Elephants are chained to one spot and a lion licks the ground for water, but the director denies that changes are needed.


CAIRO — The director calls Cairo's Giza Zoo the best in the world. Foreign experts think it's close to the worst.

A clue to what the animals think comes from a lioness pacing at the back of her cage.

She strides past her tiny cub, which is crying weakly from a dark cell and trying to wriggle through an iron gate. The keeper says he can let the cub join her mother to suckle only twice a day, because he has no chicken wire to stop the cub from squeezing between the cage's bars. But, a short walk away, chicken wire lines the cage of two pumas.

Egypt's principal zoo encapsulates the situation of zoos across the developing world. Built in an age when wild animals were objects of entertainment, these zoos now lack the money to modernize and train staff.

In some places, such as Kabul in Afghanistan, or Kinshasa in the Congo, years of war and government neglect have made matters worse for zoo animals. At Giza, "it's a lack of vision," said Richard Hoath, a Cairo-based nature writer and fellow of the London Zoological Society.

The zoo's director, Moustafa Awad, rejects the charge, saying the zoo is "No. 1 in the world."

A former civil servant in the Agriculture Ministry, Awad has made improvements since he took over the zoo in 1996. The lions now have an open area--a paddock of grass and trees where one pride at a time can take a break from the small cages.

The zoo boasts 16 hippo, creatures that have long been hunted out of the nearby Nile, and it has desert antelope such as addax and scimitar-horned oryx that are almost extinct in the wild.

But in an interview Awad appeared unaware of some problems.

Awad said all the lions have access to water throughout the day. But the lioness that recently gave birth was licking rainwater from a cavity in the cage's cracked concrete floor because there was no water in her basin.

The keeper said he would not give her water until she had eaten for fear she might vomit. British veterinarian John Knight, who has studied Giza Zoo, said there is no reason to deprive lions of water.

Awad said the zoo's African elephant is free to roam its enclosure. But two of the three times that a reporter visited, the elephant had one leg chained to the railings. Keeper Abdel Moneim said he regularly shackled the elephant because otherwise "he will not come out [of his house] for the visitors."

While Moneim spoke, the elephant's trunk fiddled with the shackle and explored Moneim's uniform, looking for the slices of sweet potato he keeps in his pocket. In exchange for a tip, Moneim gives the slices to visitors to feed the elephant.

The two Indian elephants are invariably shackled, spending the whole day anchored to the same spot. "This is inhuman," said Hoath, but Awad said the pair must be tethered to protect visitors.

Elsewhere, the adult oryx and Barbary sheep walk like big-footed circus clowns, their overgrown hooves curling up. Awad said the zoo is short of the anesthesia needed to sedate the animals while their hooves are trimmed.

Besides the problems he sees in the treatment of animals, Hoath accused the zoo of failing in its primary purpose: to educate. Enclosure signs don't tell visitors about the animals, and many enclosures have no signs at all.

The zoo used to have a high reputation. "Giza Zoo was a leader in the development of innovative enclosure design," says the Encyclopedia of the World's Zoos of the period 1891-1924. Then, the first director, Stanley Flower of Britain, used imaginative landscaping and sunken fences to turn the former royal gardens into paddocks for antelope and zebra.

"It was at one point a very good zoo," agreed Knight, "but it has not kept up with the way zoos tend to manage their animals."

A regular sight is the teasing of the gibbon, a small white ape. Children clap and chant in front of his cage until he emits a high-pitched cry.

"We are trying to enjoy ourselves," said Nabil Afif, 15. "The keeper said, 'If you want to hear him scream, shout at him.' "

Another keeper was spotted tapping a lion's paw with his finger to make him growl before a couple with a child. A crumpled bank note exchanged hands.

People tease zoo animals all over the world, Awad said. "It's not a scandal."

"I find it shocking," Virginia McKenna, the British star of the film "Born Free" who became an animal campaigner, said in a phone interview from her home in Dorking, England.

The Born Free Foundation received so many letters about the zoo's conditions that in 1997 McKenna came to meet Awad. This led to the foundation and another London-based group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, paying for a review of the zoo's operation in conjunction with the Agriculture Ministry.

The review compiled by Knight and a zoo architect recommended that Giza reduce its population--now at 6,000 animals and birds--to provide better care for fewer creatures, and that it phase out cages and build larger enclosures.

Awad rejected the report. He refused to discuss its recommendations, saying only they were not new. "We don't need foreigners to teach us how to handle our zoos," he added.

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