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At Egypt's Giza Zoo, the animals have become prey

Police say workers seeking to supplement paltry wages have turned exhibits into food or have been selling them as pets.

June 08, 2008|Abeer Allam | Bloomberg News

CAIRO — In most zoos, employees feed and care for the animals. At Egypt's Giza Zoo, police say, workers have been turning them into dinner or selling them as pets.

When two Moroccan camels were butchered in August, the perpetrators left behind only the hide and hooves. A police investigation found that a zookeeper had slaughtered the animals and sold the meat to supplement his monthly wage.

More than 400 animals, including foxes, zebras, a black panther and a giraffe, have vanished from the government-run menagerie in the last three years, according to police documents. Zoo conditions have grabbed headlines in a country where people criticize President Hosni Mubarak for everything from crumbling schools and hospitals to the low wages and rising food prices that have sparked violent protests.

"The zoo is a living example of the mess our country has become," said Ahmed Sherbiny, chairman of the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends. "It is a combination of corruption, the death of work ethic, mismanagement and apathy."

Animal rights activists are fighting to stop the zoo, which sits on the left bank of the Nile River across from Cairo, from spending $250,000 to replace a dead giraffe.

"Why don't they fix the zoo and train their staff first?" said Mona Khalil, vice president of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt. "Why would we bring more animals to suffer?"

Baby animals taken from the zoo often end up in Cairo's pet market or private collections, Sherbiny said.

Nabil Sedqui, who became the zoo's chairman last June, said he was working to improve conditions and regain membership in the World Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums. Giza Zoo was ousted in 2003 after it failed to address repeated complaints, zoo association Chairman Peter Dollinger said.

Reforms include placing identification tags on the animals to prevent disappearances.

"If the national bank is robbed today, would they blame the chairman?" Sedqui said. "If some miscreant killed the camels, what can I do? The zoo is too vast to control."

Sedqui disputed the numbers in the police report, saying that the zoo had lost only 200 animals in the three years, all of which died of natural causes.

For many Egyptians, Giza Zoo symbolizes more glamorous times when downtown Cairo was compared to Paris.

The zoo opened in 1891 on grounds that had housed the harem of the Khedive Ismael, the Ottoman viceroy who ruled Egypt at the time. He donated the 80-acre plot known as the Garden of Delights to the state.

Glimpses of the zoo's former glory remain. There are the two artificial hills joined by a green suspension bridge that the Khedive commissioned from Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who designed Paris' Eiffel Tower.

However, signs of decay are obvious. Plastic snack bags litter the ponds that once held the Khedive's trout.

On a recent day, a photographer tried to lure passersby into the lion's den for a $1.87 snapshot with the king of the jungle. There was no danger because the cub and its mother were sedated, he said.

About 10 million people visit the zoo each year. With tickets at 19 cents, it's one of Egypt's most affordable destinations.

Most visitors come to the zoo to "eat, sleep, throw orange peels at the animals and then leave a pile of trash behind them," Sedqui said.

The zoo's $1.68 million in annual ticket revenue goes directly to the Finance Ministry. Only $749,000 are given back, which Sedqui said was insufficient to pay salaries and maintain the gardens and animals.

Lions pace restlessly in narrow cages, while chimpanzees in steel enclosures scream and jump up and down, all signs of mental stress, Sherbiny said. The sole elephant is leashed to a 20-inch chain, treatment that left a previous pachyderm disabled for lack of exercise, he said.

"I have never seen lions that look so depressed, so broken," said Amal Mohammed, a 44-year-old physician who took her children to the zoo a few months ago and vowed never to return.

Zookeepers are paid less than $22.50 a month, the minimum wage for civil servants.

Rabea Mohammed, a guard who doubles as a cleaner, makes extra money by charging people to feed and take photos with exotic animals such as an Indian nilgai, a long-legged antelope.

"The zoo knows what I am doing," he said. "With my salary, I cannot even afford plain bread."

Sherbiny said that sums up the challenge faced by the zoological gardens.

"How can I ask a zookeeper who struggles to feed himself to be merciful to the animals?"

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