August 10, 2008

Changes Underway At Giza Zoo

The historical Giza Zoo in Cairo, Egypt, is learning to "cool down" after it was excluded from a world zoo association in 2004.

Powerful fans now blow chilled mist at the bears, a luxury normally reserved for wealthy human patrons at Egypt's upscale patio cafes. Also in the works: cold water that will flow in pipes beneath the cages, chilling the floors.

"They can breathe. This is improving their lives," senior zookeeper Abdel Razek Mustafa said as the bears stretched their limbs beneath the fans.

Giza Zoo was once among the crown jewels of African zoos. It was commissioned by Khedive Ismail of Egypt's royal family. It opened in 1891 to showcase imported flowers, exotic plants, and a huge exhibition of African wildlife.

Problems have plagued the zoo in recent years -- from the slaughter of two camels by nighttime intruders to the infection of some birds with the deadly H5N1 avian influenza.

Animal rights activists complain that the zoo's Victorian-style cages are too small and dingy, and that the zookeepers know little about animal health.

"The conditions are just horrendous," said Nadia Montasser, an activist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who was cautiously optimistic about the changes.

"I am against zoos. But you can't really do anything about it here in Egypt. You can't close the zoo. Where are all the animals going to go? ... These animals are not wild animals anymore. They have been living in cages all their lives."

Across the Nile River from central Cairo, the zoo is home to roughly 6,000 animals from 175 species, among them some rare species of oryx and crocodile and the Nile Lechwe, an antelope indigenous to south Sudan.

Zoo spokeswoman Mona Sadek said that several years ago, it had lost up to 25 percent of the species it once held.

She said mismanagement ultimately cost the zoo its membership in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), after a previous administration fell behind on membership fees and then ignored the recommendations of a WAZA inspection team.

"Usually, when animals die, we replace them. But during this period they didn't replace the important species," she said, adding that WAZA had found the zoo to be below standard.

WAZA Executive Director Peter Dollinger would not give details as to what WAZA found when it inspected the zoo prior to its exclusion. However, he said, "There were things that were not acceptable."

However, the problems had started long before then. In 1993, two lions killed a zookeeper after he left the outer door to their cage open while feeding them. They were then shot dead.

Later, an elephant trampled and killed another zookeeper.

In recent days, a polar bear suffering in the Cairo heat was sent to the coastal city of Alexandria where zoo officials hoped it would fare better.

The last of the giraffes perished in recent years, although the zoo hopes to replace them soon.

Egypt briefly closed the zoo after dozens of birds died in 2006, some from the bird flu virus that had just hit the most populous Arab country.

The health ministry ordered the zoo to slaughter more than 500 birds and drain its ponds.

During 2007, intruders broke into the zoo and slaughtered two camels. Sadek said one of the men confessed after being caught that he had wanted to use parts of the camel for black magic.

A new director was named for the zoo in 2007, and signs of change are apparent.

Workers are building customized mini-jungle gyms for the lizards, and combining several monkey cages to give the animals more space.

The zoo has designed a larger habitat for its growing number of chimps, including three who were recently confiscated from pet shops and a resort.

But the zoo needs sponsors to pay 2.7 million Egyptian pounds ($510,000) for construction.

"With the budget we have, we can't afford any of this. It is just for feeding and maintenance," Sadek said.

The zoo also wants to build a new yard for the bears to roam. Money is ready for a new elephant house.

An official from the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZAB) is expected to inspect the zoo and make recommendations for further changes later this month. Joining PAAZAB is a first step toward regaining membership in the world zoo body.

"We have never turned a zoo down," PAAZAB Executive Director Dave Morgan said, adding the group had an all-inclusive approach to membership but would recommend improvements.

"We do follow up on that and try to encourage and cajole change where change is needed. Our approach is ... working for change from within, rather than trying to force it from without."