The lion paces around the 2 metre-by-2 metre cage at Giza Zoo, observing the throngs of Egyptians peering at her through iron bars with tired eyes. A group of teenage boys pulls out a play shotgun and starts firing off plastic bullets. She flinches, and thrashes at the bars. The pellets ding her on the nose, next to her eye, her legs. Over and over again they fire, as a crowd gathered and started cheering for more. Nearby, a zoo keeper watches the lion, back to the audience.
“It’s OK! It’s OK!” shouts one boy. “The zoo keeper can see you. Shoot again.”
The scene, video taped by a zoo visitor and posted on YouTube, has gone viral online, sparking shock and outrage among animal rights activists.
“These rounds could poke [the lion's] eyes,” said Amina Abaza, owner of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt, who filed an official complaint about the incident.
Zoo manager Essam Al-Battawi said the lion keeper didn’t see the teenagers shoot the lion.
“We had 70 thousand visitors on the Eid vacation,” he said. “Is one zookeeper supposed to prevent all 70 thousand [from abusing animals?”
But activists say it is just one example of a long list of animal rights abuses at Giza Zoo, which was once considered the second best zoo worldwide.
“The zoo is a concentration camp,” said Abaza, who has called on the state to close the zoo down. “It is the only entertainment place in the world where people leave in tears.”
Keepers do not forbid visitors from agitating the animals. As a result, Abaza said, it’s not uncommon for people to throw things at the animals to “get a reaction”.
With low monthly salaries, many keepers depend on tips from visitors, so they’ll often poke or harass animals with iron rods in order to make them roar or perform tricks, she said. They provide the captive victims with food only when customers pay them to do so.
“Zoo keepers torture animals for tips,” Abaza said.
Animals are fed minimum quantities of the cheapest food the zoo authority can purchase, she said. One visitor reported seeing the lions gnawing on carrots.
“Go take a look during feeding hours and you will see for yourself,” she said.” Their protruding bones are enough evidence.”
The animals live in tiny cages, with bare concrete floors. Their living quarters reek from lack of cleaning. Hippos swim through water so murky it looks like mulukhyah. Elephants are tethered on chains less than a metre long.
The zoo doesn’t provide training about animal behavior, Abaza said.
“The people there have no idea about wild, or any, animals,” she said. “They don’t listen to any advice, and they refuse help from experts.”
During a recent stroll through the zoo, Daily News Egypt observed a number of animals suffering from untreated injuries and diseases. Spectators have repeatedly reported finding dead animals left in their places, cats running around in monkey and bird cages, and snakes’ glass boxes left open and many other forms of negligence.
Al-Battawi assured Daily News Egypt that animals receive excellent medical care and are in good health.
But animal activist Dina Zulfikar said the zoo is ill equipped to care for animals medical and dental needs. It has no x-ray machine or fluoroscope device to check felines for rotten teeth, or any other tools necessary for periodic tests on animals.
“Animals should be checked for tuberculosis [TB] periodically, but this is not done ,” Zulfikar said. “The zoo also should offer [blood] tests for zookeepers as they may contract or transmit diseases.”
With nothing to do, animals often become depressed to the point where they sit still, staring into nothingness, Abaza said. Lions pace around their cages and bears act as if they are in a trance.
After a giraffe committed suicide in December, the zoo authority spent four years trying to get another one while international zoos refused, she said.
“They had to buy it off the black market,” Abaza said.
Animals are often sedated, Abaza said – sometimes with fatal consequences.
In 2013, three female grizzly bears died. In its official statement, the zoo declared that the bears had died fighting over a male – a story that sent giggles echoing through social media. But a few days later, it was discovered that the bears died after being sedated. Two bears fell over, breaking several bones. One drowned.
Photo sessions with various species, mainly lion cubs, offered for around EGP 20, are dangerous to the animals because they are not built to resist human infections, Zulfikar said. After a cub has been handled by visitors, mother lions sometimes refuse to take them back because they smell like a million people.
“They do not check up on people before interacting with the animal,” he said.
Another issue is the zoo’s location. At the heart of Giza, it is much polluted, Zulfikar said, saying it is no longer appropriate to keep animals there.
“These zoos are all built on very limited pieces of land that can only be used for breeding a small number of animals,” he said. “Although Giza Zoo … contains more than 200 different species of animals, its 80 acres of land aren’t suitable for breeding more than 10 species.”
But Al-Battawi argued that the enclosures are consistent with the specifications of the time when the zoo was established, and that activists are now seeking further freedoms although the animals have adapted to this environment.
“We have succeeded in breeding 70 or 80 percent of the animals,” he said. “An animal does not breed if it feels that it is in captivity.”
Activists have called to turn the zoo into a safari. Zulfikar asked the zoo authorities, not to acquire new animals, but to improve the quality of life for those already there.
“They unnecessarily breed animals that do not need breeding, and leave the ones that are endangered, such as the Egyptian hyena,” she said.
Alaa Morsy, technical office manager of the General Organization of Veterinary Services, said, however, that turning the zoo into a wild park would cost billions of pounds that Egypt doesn’t have.
The zoo is an attractive outing for poor Egyptians because of its low-priced tickets (EGP 3), particularly during holidays.
“If we turned it into a safari, as they want, the ticket wouldn’t be less than EGP 250 and the poor people would be deprived from the enjoyment of watching animals,” Morsy told Egypt Independent.
Zulfikar argues that the consequences of doing nothing are greater than monetary loss.
“These are living creatures with feelings,” she said. “They are a responsibility.”