“Giza Zoo manager: the runaway monkeys got married and live happily ever after.”
Thus headlined Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm in August 2018. Three monkeys had reportedly escaped and frightened members of the Cairo Sporting Club. They eventually caught the little monkeys and returned them to the zoo.
Opened in 1891, Giza Zoo is Africa’s oldest. Before that it was a botanical garden with rare plants and cacti from all over the world. Situated on the west bank of the Nile, the zoo extends over 20 hectares. It contains multiple water works, as well as the iron hanging bridge, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and a royal guesthouse for Egypt’s last King Farouk.
At the time of the news of the “married monkeys,” we Egyptians had endured four years of the Sisi regime. We were living in the grip of a security state at the height of a climate of fear, with an emerging economic system that no longer relied on rationality. Giant infrastructure projects and uprooting public parks were prioritized over education, agriculture and industry.
Meet The Monkeys
The general Egyptian media response did not differ much from the zoo management’s statement: all is well, the monkeys got married and lived happily after. But the monkeys do not live happily in Giza Zoo, just as we do not live happily in Egypt.
At the time, the monkeys’ escape from the zoo and their “attack” on Cairo Sporting Club seemed like a rebellion, a protest against their captivity in a miserable place.
Looking at the pictures above, the one on the left is just sad. In the picture on the right, we can see a certain joy in the faces of those who caught the monkey. As if it was a criminal fleeing his sentence.
These men are not police officers or informants, but ordinary citizens. The peak of fear in Egypt at that time was arguably the ordinary citizen’s enthusiasm in identifying with the informant, which is what happens when people start believing media nonsense about happy monkeys.
Why is the picture on the right so funny to me? It is the sense of fake confidence and accomplishment, as well as wanting to share the joy of capturing a runaway monkey. It shows a deep-felt pride in absolutely nothing.
The New Zoo
It may seem harsh, linking Giza Zoo with what is going on in Egypt today. But Egyptian President Sisi himself did so on October 25, 2022, in his closing speech on the Egypt Economic Conference: “If you want to know Egypt, go to the zoo.”
Characterizing the zoo, Sisi mentioned: “negligence, a crumbling infrastructure, shortcomings and suffering,” The presidential discourse seemed a hint, as by the end of December a massive plan to renovate the zoo was announced.
For a moment, it was as if we were back in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s famous 1956 speech. Yet, instead of nationalizing the Suez Canal to take it out of foreign hands, Giza Zoo ownership will pass to the Egyptian Ministry of Military Production and an Emirati partner, which will reap revenues for the next 25 years.
The monkeys, living “happily” in the zoo since 2018, did not have a say in the controversy regarding the move into the hands of the military and Arab investors.
In his October 25 speech Sisi also mocked the Egyptians for always criticizing the government. He said the zoo was in a terrible state and he would rather open ten new ones. But the people would arguably lament “the plants, and beautiful lions” of the old one.
TV host Amr Adib, known for his support of the regime, did not like the joke. Or perhaps other potential investors, say Saudi, did not like it. So they spoke with the words of Adib: “The money that comes to you should not be invested in the development of a zoo or entertainment park. There are more important things such as: factories, a decent life, and so on.”
“The garden collapsed a million years ago,” Adib added. “There is not a single giraffe in there.”
That last statement is inaccurate. Giza Zoo is home to a depressed giraffe named Sawsan who lives in the giraffes’ house and is popular in the news. In our minds Sawsan is a star.
Giraffes and Bears
In 2006, the zoo was closed due to bird flu. In that same year the zoo’s only giraffe died. But in 2012 three new giraffes arrived from South Africa at a cost of US$ 1.5 million. One of them was Sawsan.
Yet, life in Egypt did not fare well for the Giza Zoo’s new giraffes. The first died after only nine days because of fever. A few days later, a second giraffe named Rocca seemingly committed suicide, as it reportedly banged its head against the walls until it died.
The zoo’s management claimed the reason for the giraffe’s death was mistreatment by visitors, which seems yet another “happy monkeys” story.
Amina Abaza, head of the Animal Welfare Association Society, did not go along with the management’s reasoning. “I do not believe this statement,” she said. “Because this is not the first time it happened. Before that, three bears had died.”
Abaza went on to call for the resignation of the Giza Zoo management. According to her, they do not care about the animals’ well being.
Note that one common cause for the death of the zoo’s bears is their refusal to eat, apparently in protest against their mistreatment. Much like many Egyptian prisoners do.
In 2016, there was the happy news that Sawsan had given birth to Aziz, but that too proved short lived. Sawsan refused to breastfeed him. Sawsan was depressed and the baby giraffe soon died. In 2018, as Sawsan’s depression became a hot topic and rich source of metaphors for the Egyptian media, Sawsan’s husband Yasso died.
Sawsan’s new husband arrived in December 2020 with 3 other giraffes from South Africa. And news like “5 reasons why single people were envious of the giraffe Sonson … she was patient and won.” spread like wildfire. However, the new husband died less than 10 days later on December 31.
Meanwhile, the zoo’s management did take urgent action to change the name of the horse barn. What was known as the “Sisi” barn, it is now the “Siasi” (politician) barn.
400 Stolen Animals
Between the death of the one lonely giraffe in 2006 and the arrival of Sawsan there was more suffering in the zoo. In 2010, two rare camels were stolen by a young man with the help of several guards. The aim was to eat and sell their meat, as a solution to the young man’s financial woes.
The camels were not alone: between 2005 and 2008, more than 400 animals disappeared from the zoo and were sold as pets, including a black leopard. It was not just animals that got stolen from the zoo.
In 2013, then Minister of Agriculture Mohamed Abu Hadid inspected King Farouk’s royal guesthouse, which had been officially closed in 1986. To his surprise he discovered that the late king’s bedroom made of ivory and gold had been stolen. It had been replaced by a second hand bedroom from Omar Effendi stores.
It was long unclear what had happened until in 2018 a video on the M.S. Rau Antiques website went viral. Posted by a company selling antiques in the United States, it showed the late king’s furniture and the date of its manufacturing. It was put on sale for nearly one million dollars.
In 2004, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) declared that Giza Zoo was no longer a member, due to Egyptian officials ignoring WAZA recommendations regarding widespread neglect and mistreatment of the zoo’s animals.
The food and hygiene standards, for example, were extremely low. Elephants were tied with iron chains. However, Mohamed Ragai, Head of the Central Administration of Zoos, in 2018 presented another narrative.
According to him, the reason for Egypt’s exclusion was a delay in paying the contributions, which amount to some US$ 800 a year. A statement befitting the year of the happy monkeys.
In the TV series Al-Mishwar, which was broadcast last year, director Mohamed Yassin showed wonderful images of the Giza Zoo,emphasizing that what needs developing is the mentality of the people running the zoo, while ensuring that one of the city’s few remaining green spaces remain accessible for all Egyptians.
And exactly that remains to be seen. Exploitation of the zoo will be in the hands of an Emirati investor for a period of 25 years. And the aim of any investor is financial return. In 2020, entrance fees for the Cairo’s Citadel of Saladin five-folded after management was transferred to an Emirati-Egyptian investor.