Monday, September 28, 2009

Cairo Zoo

“What are we going to do today, Mommy?” Rachel asked while climbing onto our bed. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.

It’s not like we do something thrilling everyday. Sometimes we don’t even leave the house. I don’t know what she was expecting, really.

“Why don’t we go to the Z-O-O today?” Andrew spelled.

“I guess we could do that,” I said, “We’ve been meaning to take her for a while. She’d probably like that. And you know that when you spell Z-O-O it doesn’t do much to disguise the word. I don’t think she even knows what a zoo is, anyway.”

“Yeah! I do! Zoos has lions and ‘nakes!” Rachel said defensively.

Andrew reminded me that there is a 5-minute zoo show on her Little People DVD. I forgot. Oops.

And that is how we decided to go to the zoo.

We got dressed, ate breakfast, packed some water and snacks and headed for the metro. We got off at Dokki station because we had read that was the closest station to the zoo. I don’t know why, but for some reason the trains on line two always seem to be more crowded, hot, and stinky than the trains on line one. Their stations, however, are a bit more fancy and even have escalators.

Rachel was very impressed.

“What it is?” she asked us.

Andrew was carrying her when we stepped on the escalator and started magically floating upwards.

“It’s an escalator,” I told her, “It takes us upstairs without us even having to walk.”

Her eyes got all big.

“No, really, look down,” Andrew told her, “I’m not moving my feet.”

She looked down and then looked back up at us with her eyes even wider than before.

“No way!” she squealed in excitement and disbelief, “No way!”

Escalators are the coolest thing ever, apparently. We need to get out more.

We caught a cab outside of Dokki and he took us straight to the zoo. It cost us about 5 LE (in a metered cab), which isn’t terrible, although the traffic was horrendous and it seemed to take us forever to get there.

When we finally did we couldn’t find the ticket booth. It’s off to the far right of the main entrance, hidden behind vendors touting blow-up giraffes, bubble solution, and grilled corn on the cob. There is only one available window, even though there are five or six windows and five or six employees jammed inside, and is about at knee-level so you have to stoop down to communicate with the unwilling employee inside.

Tickets are cheaper than water at 1 LE per person. We aren’t sure what the fee is for bringing cameras inside, but they charged us 20 LE—the price to bring a video camera inside. We’re quite sure we shouldn’t have been charged anything for our camera…or at least just a nominal fee of 20 piasters or something.

The lady at the window told us 20 LE, though, and refused to give us change. She didn’t give us a ticket for our camera, either, which tipped us off that something was wrong. Andrew tried arguing with her, but to no avail. So we let her keep the 20 LE and entered the chaos of the zoo.

Founded in the 1890s, the zoo was once considered a world-class facility. This is no longer the case; although their website is rather optimistic about their current status, they are in fact not part of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums anymore. They are apparently making changes to rectify this, but I didn’t see much evidence of anything positive happening there. The zoo is in a sad, sad state.

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As one of Cairo’s few accessible green areas, it’s used more for entertainment purposes than for anything else. Families were picnicking left and right, children were running around playing ball and shooting at animals with pellet guns.

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Surprisingly, pellet guns are not against the posted regulations. At least, not on any of the signs that we saw.

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As far as we can tell, the rules were:

1) No water (or perhaps no drinking the irrigation water?)
2) No sitting on the grass
3) No kicking balls
4) No listening to music
5) No shaking your fingers at the animals (could also be that they don’t want you sticking them in the alligator enclosure, but it seems a little ambiguous)
6) No smoking
7) No throwing small children into the animal enclosures (or perhaps they want you to keep away from the fences)
8) No fishing (who goes to a zoo to fish?)
9) No shouting at the animals, especially slugs (also no shaking fingers)
10) No dumping trash into the water
11) No stepping on grass and/or flowers
12) No shaman dancing or ritual sacrifices (?)
13) No littering
14) No feeding candy to bears, obese deer, or frog-like monkeys

It was hard to tell what the rules were, really, what with all of them being broken constantly. No rules were really being followed that I could tell. Feeding of animals is encouraged by the keepers; people even throw random bits of food to the animals. The animal keepers smoke. Trash is everywhere. Most of the enclosures had more than one barrier between the animals and the public, which is pretty standard. However, people would picnic between the barriers, right up close to the fence by the animals. It was kind of strange.

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It was quite chaotic; we were shocked at how many people were there and how poorly they behaved. Zoo etiquette here is much different than zoo etiquette in the States. Luckily we just had regular crowds to contend with; we’re glad we didn’t go to the zoo during Eid.

The Cairo Zoo website boasts, “in 2007 number of visitors was more than 3,398,000. On feast days this number is four or fivefold” [sic]. This year, according to Bikya Masr, 73,000 people visited the zoo on the September 21st, the second day of eid. There was supposed to be increased security at the zoo to help keep the crowds under control, but of course the increased security meant absolutely nothing and the crowd went a little insane, anyway. They rushed the peacock cage, tried to steal a peacock, and encouraged other birds to escape. Meanwhile parents, guards, and zoo keepers looked on.

It wasn’t that bad today, but it was still pretty crowded.

Rachel couldn’t have been happier with her time at the zoo. She loved (almost) every minute of it and was so excited to see the animals. There was a large flamingo pond right at the entrance.

“Flamimos!” she exclaimed, “I wanna go in there. I wanna touch them. I wanna swim with them! I wanna see them! Please!”

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She’s always been fond of flamingos and was quite disappointed when we told her she couldn’t visit them.

As we moved through the zoo we had several opportunities to help “feed” the animals. The main method of doing this, it seems, is to take a long stick with a sharpened end—much like a marshmallow roasting stick—and stick a piece of food (lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, apples, etc.) on the end and then hold it out for the animal to eat. All this for the minimal fee of 25 piasters (although we had heard it was 5 LE, we noticed the locals weren’t giving that much and paying that much to allow a zoo keeper to force my baby to hold one measly bit of lettuce out to an ostrich didn’t seem worth it, so we paid what we observed the locals paying).

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It seems like a pretty lame way to have lunch to me—one small bit of food at a time and only when there are children around to shove it in your mouth with a dangerous, pointed stick. I wonder if the animals get fed anything in addition to their constant snacking.

Rachel was too scared to feed the animals at first, so Andrew ended up doing a lot of helping. Apparently he thinks that ostriches respond to human cues—like opening their mouths to encourage their young to open their own. He’s a natural parent-figure.

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Next to the ostriches were some sick-looking Bactrian camels. One of them didn’t seem to be able to walk forward and instead limped sideways like a crab, without even turning its head. I thought for sure it was going to crash right into the fence, but it didn’t. It got turned around in time to shove its face against the bars in order to fight its peers for a chance to beg for food.

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Most of the camels’ humps had flopped to the side, signifying malnutrition as that is where camels store their fat supply. I would probably suffer from malnutrition if I were fed by kids with sticks as well. I suppose these camels are the lucky ones since they were not among those slaughtered for meat two years ago by zoo workers.

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Rachel really liked the baby deer and was excited when the zoo keeper offered to let her feed it a carrot.

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We had quite the time trying to navigate the zoo. There were blue signs posted in both English and Arabic, pointing the way to certain animals; they seemed about as accurate as the street signs here, however, which means that they weren’t very accurate.

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And we couldn’t even use animals as a point of reference. No matter which side of the park we took off for we ended up walking past several pens of ostriches on the way, making us question whether we’d come that way before. Apparently they just have dozens of ostrich enclosures throughout the park. They breed well in captivity, apparently, so are a great animal for the Cairo Zoo, which can’t seem to find replacements for its giraffes, and other animals that have either died of starvation and exhaustion or been sold as pets on the black market.

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The BBC reports that “more than 400 animals—including a giraffe and black panther—[have] disappeared between 2005 and 2008. It is thought many were sold as pets.” It seems they fill the empty enclosures with ostriches instead of actually replacing the animals.

Rachel tolerated our meanderings, looking at the eagles and zebras and ibexes, peering into pasty-green ponds filled with trash and (according to her) fish, and shying away from the ever-exotic mallard.

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What she really wanted to see, she kept reminding us, were the lions. And elephants. And snakes. And monkeys.

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We were doing our best to find those animals but kept getting switched around. Eventually we found the hippopotamus ponds and she was pretty content with that.

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I’ve never seen a hippopotamus up so close before. They’re quite big and intimidating; I can’t believe people were allowing their children to feed them handfuls of grass. Hippos are rather aggressive and their mouths are gigantic, as are their teeth. At least it’s not my arm…

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If you were to ask Rachel what she remembers about the hippos, it would be that one of them did a very large, long, and loud bowel movement in our presence. He walked up to the metal siding on the fence and did his business like he wasn’t ashamed of anything (and I’m sure he wasn’t). His tail was flapping against the metal, making it sound even louder and spraying his waste all over the place. People had to back up in order to not get speckled with hippo droppings.

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He was quite pleased with himself when he was finished and started grunting happily. All the other hippos in the pond grunted back—to congratulate him, I suppose.

I hope that won’t be her only memory of the zoo—I’m sure it won’t be since we saw so many other interesting things—as my only memory of going to the circus as a child is of the elephants letting loose their business on the stagehands. Good times.

She was absolutely enraptured with the baboons. She’s been interested in baboons since Naanii visited us in August. Naanii flew from South Africa to Egypt so that she could visit us on her way home from a conference; she had a lot of interesting pictures to share with us and she and Rachel spent a lot of time (hours, even) going through my mom’s photos. My mom taught Rachel how to tell the difference between a daddy baboon and a mommy baboon. Rachel can still spot the difference and point out which baboons are male and which baboons are female. We watched the baboons for a long, long time while Rachel told us about everything she had learned from Naanii.

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We enjoyed watching the chimpanzees as well. There were two chimps in every cage and this one particular pair seemed to not get along very well. Not only was their cage surrounded by people, their peers in the other cages were just staring at them and scratching their heads. These two monkeys, both male, were picking on each other incessantly.

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The more aggressive one, who was almost always hanging from the ceiling, would only come down to punch the other one before clambering back up to the top of the cage. He wouldn’t let the other one touch the rope or anything. He purposely urinated on the other, splashing at his pee with his hands to get the other as soaked as possible. Then they wrestled and splashed in the puddle he’d made. They were quite ridiculous to watch, but entertaining at the same time, I suppose.

From there we wandered into a forgotten and sorely neglected area of the park. There were few animals, no game keepers, and a whole lot of garbage.

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We saw a pond that was such an unnatural shade of neon green and absolutely covered in trash, including dirty diapers. We were shocked to find out that this was the pelican pond!

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At least most of the trash was collecting in one part of the pond and the pelicans were left with a relatively trash-free, albeit neon green, pond to swim in. Rachel watched them while hanging off some broken metal structure of some kind…

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It didn’t take us long to abandon our efforts of exploring this section of the park. We turned around and headed for the elephant house. It was pretty easy to find, after coming out of the abandoned area of the zoo. I don’t know why we couldn’t find it without having to wander around in garbage for 20 minutes.

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Rachel loves elephants. She calls them “esinants,” though it bothers her to no end if anyone else calls them that. I was teasing her about it this morning because I’m a nice mom like that.

“Oh, you want to see esinants, do you?”

“Don’t say esinants, Mommy! Say esinants!”


“No! Say it right!”

She was thrilled to watch the elephant picking up bits of food with its trunk until the keeper pulled Andrew over to the fence and made the elephant eat some food off of his head. The elephant grabbed at her hair with its trunk and touched her arm before finally finding the food, with some help from the keeper, that was on Andrew’s head.

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She was not impressed until long after it was over. Now she can’t stop talking about how the elephant bit her and/or how he smelled her with his trunk.

You’ll note, in the pictures, that there are all these random hands touching Rachel’s back. She almost needed her own sign telling people her name and nationality. Everyone wanted to touch her and take her picture, as usual. She was about as popular as any other attraction at the zoo.

She’s getting braver with how she handles the attention, though.

“No, I’m Dacher!” she yells at people, “I don’t wanna ride a taxi. I don’t want it. I don’t. Run away!”

She doesn’t ever really listen to what people are saying to her and uses the same response for everyone, whether they were asking for her name or trying to sell her a balloon.

I personally think it’s awesome that she walks past pushy vendors selling shell necklaces and animal balloons and face paints and candy screaming, “I don’t want it! I don’t want it! I don’t want it!”

Vendors here won’t leave until she tells them to, or unless we get very forceful and aggressive as parents. “She must choose for herself,” they say. Unless it’s a banana from her friends at The Tree, she always says she doesn’t want it.

The taxi ride part is also hilarious. She confuses a lot of people with that line. So many people walked away muttering, “She said something about a taxi…”

While we were watching the lions she told several people she didn’t want to ride in their taxis. She also kept screaming at a little toddler that I was her mom. He was clinging onto my leg while watching the lions and she was just yelling at him,

“That’s my mom! Let her go! Run away!”

She doesn’t like crowds, apparently. But she sure did like the lions!

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We got there just before feeding time. The lions are kept two to a cage; the cages are smaller than Rachel’s bedroom. They were pacing around in circles, almost salivating. They stared out of their cages with lustful, wild hunger in their eyes. It was actually kind of scary to watch.

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They didn’t seem too interested in the people surrounding their cages, luckily; instead they were intently focused on the big metal buckets full of slabs of raw meat that were being lugged down from the truck and dragged in front of their cages. When the delivery truck drove up one of the lions opened up their mouth and growled a bit, anxious for their meal, which ended up being more snack-like in proportion.

Rachel showed us what the lion did.

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The workers brought the meat around and flung it into the cages, pushing it through the bars with a metal pole. Occasionally the lions weren’t patient enough and reached through the bars to get their share of the meat. Then their paws were whacked or poked with the metal sticks and they’d growl before retracting them back into the cage.

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The keepers don’t seem very confident while feeding the lions and I don’t really see how they could when their method of feeding involves throwing fresh meat between the bars of cages while paws are swiping out at them.

I asked Rachel what the lions ate and she said, “Garbage meat.”

They were one of her favorite things to see at the zoo, but she wasn’t ready to leave after we’d seen them because we still hadn’t found the snakes. So we wandered around until we found the reptile house, which requires another ticket (only 1 LE; same thing for one of the elephant enclosures, but not the elephant house).

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Like most of the zoo, the reptile house was a little rundown. It was hard to see the crocodiles and alligators outside because the water was so dirty, but you could feed them (we didn’t) and see how they can almost jump out of their cages.

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We found the signage funny, of course. For your safety please don’t catch any reptile. Alternatively, don’t catch any reptile for your safety. Andrew was really disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to catch a safety reptile. And why is it that there is so much more on the Arabic sign? It makes me wonder what important details they left off of the English sign.

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Inside the reptile house they were putting snakes on people’s heads. Rachel was not impressed, but she enjoyed looking at the reptiles through the glass, even the ones fed with “garbage food,” like these poor little turtles.

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She was definitely ready to go when we had finished with the reptile house, which is good because Andrew and I were exhausted, too. I took her picture in front of the Nile crocodiles and this was the best face she could come up with:

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That’s a nap-time face if I’ve ever seen one!

She loved the zoo, though, probably with about as much passion as any little person could. Probably she liked it about the same amount that Andrew and I were shocked by it. It was quite unlike any zoo that either of us had ever been to!

She can’t wait to go back, but we’re hoping to postpone a return trip for as long as possible. We found the zoo a little ghetto. It was a great way to spend our day, though, and it was fun to see her so excited about seeing animals.

We grabbed a taxi on the street right outside the zoo and asked him to take us to the closest metro station. He took us to Sayyeda Zeinab, which surprised us. It took just as long to get there as it did to get to the zoo from Dokki and only cost us a pound more. And we didn’t have to change lines, which was nice.

The metro was so crowded on the way home! Rachel stood like a flamingo the whole way home, which is pretty impressive since she was on a moving train car. We ended up having to stand the whole way since some women took our seats.

A nice couple indicated to me that they would like me to have their seat since I was pregnant and had a toddler pulling on my arm for balance while she pretended to be a flamingo (I was holding onto Andrew’s sleeve; he was holding onto the pole that I couldn’t reach because it was too crowded). When they stood up, however, some women pushed them away from their seats and into me so that I couldn’t take a seat.

The girls sat down and stared at me victoriously. I spent the whole train ride showing off my bloated profile to them and talking to Andrew about how I just wish I could have a seat since I’m having a baby soon and I’m as big as a whale and my feet are swollen and it’s hot and stuffy. He kept laughing at me because he didn’t think that they understood what I was saying.

“Maybe not everything,” I said, patting my tummy, “But I know they know the word baby and I know they know that they’re sitting in my seat because I’m expecting a baby *pat, pat* and that man clearly was giving his seat to me. I’m having a baby in less than a month, after all. I wish my baby and I could have a seat!”

Every time I said baby they’d glance up at me and look a little guilty. Ruthlessly, however, they didn’t budge and instead let me and my pregnant belly be jostled by everyone getting on and off the train while I did my best to keep myself and flamingo-Rachel upright.

And that’s why I never ride in the women’s car. It’s awful in there. Women aren’t chivalrous. I usually have no problem getting a seat in the mixed cars, but not when there are teenage girls around, apparently. Perhaps I should have asserted myself better instead of being so passive-aggressive about the whole thing. Watching them squirm was so entertaining, though, like watching the lions pace their cages before being fed or something.

Maybe the zoo had more of an impact on me than I thought…


  1. Holy mackerel! It took me 25 minutes to read this post! It was totally like a chapter in a book! Good reading, too.

  2. This definitely was a long post. But so interesting too! I love all the signs they have around the zoo. The ostrich cracked me up, and the pictures of Rachel and Andrew with the elephant. What a fun day!!!

  3. Yeah, sorry about that. :) I was labeling it and Andrew was like, "What in the world did you cram into this post?!"

    A lot. We did a word count last night. I can't remember what it was, exactly. Andrew says it was 4098 words, but that includes the picture numbers, so it wasn't quite that high. Still, that's like a 10 page paper!

    It was quite the experience.

  4. I have, for once, some knowledge for you guys. It is about the hippo, his poo, and why he was waving his tail about while pooing. I learned recently, not sure from where anymore, but it was on TV, that when a male hippo goes poo and waves his tail in it, he is signifying to a mate that he is ready to mate with that mate. HAHA! Great use of words there. It was on a show I think called "Most Disgusting Animals." Or "Most Smelling Animals." So that is why the hippo was flailing his poo at you with his tail. I could be wrong, maybe he just liked you guys. ;)

  5. Dude. This is on my (very short) list of placed not to go when I grow up to be cool like you.

    I think teenage girls here would've taken your seat too - teenage girls are horribly selfish people. I know because I was one. :)