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‘Hell for animals’: Egypt's Giza Zoo beset by tear gas, bear ‘riots’ and giraffe ‘suicide’

Animal-rights activists have long been concerned about conditions there

The giraffe committed suicide, an Egyptian newspaper reported. And the government pulled a former zoo director out of retirement to deal with the resulting media storm.

“The problem is with the press,” Nabil Sedki said one recent afternoon, five days into the job. “The media fabricated the suicide.”

The deceased animal was a three-year-old giraffe named Roqa, who, Sedki said, inadvertently hanged herself in early December after getting tangled in a wire inside her enclosure at the government-run Giza Zoo, in the heart of Cairo.

The state has launched three investigations – one purely forensic, another by the government’s official veterinary body and a third by a legal committee – “to see who will hang instead of the giraffe,” Sedki said with a wry laugh.

Animal-rights activists have long been concerned about conditions at Giza. In 2010, the zoo began to separate its lions by gender in an effort to stem its skyrocketing lion population. Meat is pricey, and space is limited. Many big cats are packed two per cramped cage. They eat mostly donkey carcasses, zookeepers said, and “fast” one day a week.

In May, three black bears died in one night under mysterious circumstances. Zoo authorities called it a bear “riot”. In 2007 and in 2008, local media reported that zookeepers were slaughtering camels for meat to eat themselves – many keepers earn less than $60 (£37) a month – and to sell to other hungry Egyptians.

And this month, the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported that Roqa had committed suicide. The article went viral.

“Is there anyone,” Sedki asked, “who actually believes that this giraffe committed suicide?” As he spoke, a fresh, stinging cloud of tear gas wafted in through an open doorway, and the thudding blasts of tear-gas cannon could be heard from the latest clashes between police and student protesters at nearby Cairo University.

Just outside the 122-year-old zoo’s main gate is Nahda Square, which served as an encampment for supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi last August. Police used bullets and tear gas to disperse the protesters, killing scores of people.

Incoming tear gas compels zookeepers to wrap their faces in scarves. According to Sedki, it gets to the animals, too.

“This is not a zoo,” said Mona Khalil, a founder of the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals. “This is hell for animals.”

© The Washington Post