We the Animal People

The revolution at the zoo started not because certain chained individuals were striving to break free, but because those individuals had been put in the wrong cages — and their chains were too short. The call went out on Facebook; activists from the whole of Egypt’s sectarian animal rights movement were to gather on Friday, April 16th 2011 at 11am at the main gates of the Giza Zoo. Kicked out of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2004, the Giza Zoo is legendary for its failed polar bear cooling systems, for the elephant kept on a twelve-inch chain, for giving human birth control pills to lions for contraception after a leonine population explosion left the Zoo with fifty-three big cats to feed. And for its zookeepers, who for a $2 bribe will let your children play inside the cage with the animal of your choice. Their salaries well below minimum wage, the Giza zookeepers have been known to slaughter their charges for meat, leaving the occasional inedible hoof behind. It was noon by the time I caught up with the protest — they had assembled unannounced at a side door, in a standard Facebook feint to throw off the police. As roughly forty activists, an even mix of Egyptians and foreigners, stood in the street, slowing traffic with posters of the small, the furry, and the mutilated, I was taken under wing by Marie Antoinette Castelli, a woman in her fifties with a hijab and an American accent.

Marie Antoinette Castelli: Orangutans in the whole world are endangered. In Dubai, they had three. They gave them as a state gift to Egypt. But Egypt is not qualified to receive them; they are not even a member of WAZA. Egypt put the orangutans in a chimpanzees’ cage, without much food, and one named Fatouta died. We want to get the other two of them sent back to Dubai. So we’re telling the ministers, SEND THEM BACK! They refuse, because they’re too proud, so they’re going to build them a cage now. But Egypt has no money for this, because of the revolution. Three chimps were displaced by the orangutans and had to be sent to Alexandria, which doesn’t have proper facilities for them, either. We want the orangutans back in Dubai and the chimps back in Cairo.

Anna Della Subin: So this is mostly a primate-oriented protest?

MAC: No, no, then there was the dolphins. Last year there was a guy who had eight dolphins imported from Japan to his villa in the desert in Hurghada, and kept them in a 9x9 swimming pool in dirty water for three months. Here’s a picture of the dirty water. We had this in color—it was supposed to be big — but someone printing it didn’t come through. I want to introduce you to Heather, she came all the way from Hurghada, and she’s a foreigner. She’s from Ireland, and she did a lot with the dolphins, and she called for the protest today. She’s really our leader.

Heather Nagy: [in a heavy Irish accent] I called for it. We were fed up, mind, with emailing, begging, petitions, there’s only so much of that you can do. I live in Hurghada, where the dolphins were imported from Japan, though we have the Red Sea seven minutes walk away and people can see them swimming in the wild. Today, we want them confiscated. My activism started with the dolphin issue, because they were imported into a swimming pool just around the corner from my house. Then there was another group of dolphins that had been imported from the Ukraine and the dolphins stayed in the airport for seventeen hours, on board the aircraft, due to missing paperwork. But they had the documents the whole time! They were just not shown because they would reveal the dolphins were wild and the governor had decreed, no more wild dolphins to be brought into Hurghada. Totally totally corrupt.

MAC: And this chimp, who was displaced by the orangutans, had cancer and a tumor and they put him in isolation with no sun for a year. [Shows me a photograph.] So Heather invited people and they came. She didn’t even tell me she was going to do it, but the next day she advertised this protest on Facebook and asked me to support it. At first I thought, it might not be the right time to say, “We love animals, don’t kill dogs.” I mean, it’s a problem that they kill dogs, it’s a problem. But maybe this isn’t the time to say, “Awww, don’t kill dogs.” We have other problems in Egypt. But if you’re replacing all the other corrupt ministers, why not replace these corrupt ministers too, and build a foundation. So I said, “Ok, I support it.” Over here is Susie, she works at the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA). She did a lot of work recently with the horses who were starving at the pyramids since the revolution—

Susie Nassar: They still are. With no tourists visiting the pyramids and paying for horseback rides, the owners of the stables can’t afford to feed them — their source of income has dried up. There’s a graveyard of corpses in Nazlet El Sema, and more dying from malnourishment each day. We feed now 650 horses every week. [She holds a poster of a dog with its front legs chopped off.]

ADS: And what happened to him!?

SN: This a dog called Felfel. Some schoolboys chopped his front legs off. He’s recovering in Germany now and got a prosthetic leg.

MAC: I got to meet him once at World Animal Day.

ADS: It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a pet culture in Egypt…

SN: No. We’ve got so many Persians and small white dogs at our shelter that have been dumped in the streets of Zamalek since January 25. Mona [gestures towards a woman standing nearby] was in Tahrir during the revolution saving the stray cats and dogs from the rubber bullets.

Mona Khalil: I was not there particularly there for the cats, I was there because I wanted to be in Tahrir — I’m an Egyptian. But it caught my attention with the first tear gas bomb that the cats were suffocating. We took some kittens that were hiding inside a tire in one of the buildings back to the shelter. And later, after the demonstrations ended, we found others that we think were abandoned from homes or people who had to leave the country. You usually don’t see Persians and Siamese in the streets. We took in eleven cats after the revolution. One didn’t make it. One is now living in Chicago.

MAC: [handing me a packet] We have a list of demands and at the end of the protest we’re going to deliver them to the three ministers. Two offices are in the zoo — one office by the chimps and one office by the orangutans. And this is going to be handed to the Minister of Agriculture in Dokki. The ministers are making money, and it’s endangering people and animals. We want to replace the current CITES ministers [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] because they take money and they sign papers for the illegal import of animals. We want to ban exotic animal photo sessions. And encourage quarantine—when an animal comes from Japan, they should quarantine it! It could have a disease. Don’t put it in some guy’s backyard. The neighbors could get some sort of big disease, you know. And then impose restrictions on slaughterhouses and the ways they kill the dogs, and on pet shops. [Reads from the list of demands] Humane ways of transferring rabbits and chickens — they carry rabbits in bags of rice. Licenses for donkey carts, and getting them get check-ups. You know when Americans have a car, you have to get an inspection. Why can’t the donkeys go for maintenance? And all zoos must have one day off during the week so the animals can rest. Yesterday one of the women, Dina, was talking to the Minister of Agriculture and he set some kind of meeting up today, later on, with her. But this whole protest is not, like, one organization. It’s the people, and animal lovers. But what happens is a lot of organizations try to hijack the protests. I’m not from any of them. Heather called for it and then I jumped in, and then we got the shelters interested one by one and now we have a whole bunch of people but all of them are supporting their own causes and the last to join are the ones taking over…

ADS: Do you have conflicting ideas with some of the organizations?

MAC: Yeah, because shelters handle dogs and cats. They don’t handle dolphins. But CITES, and Wildlife, and the Zoo are dealing with dolphins and tigers and lions. So, most of the people out of the shelters are just dealing with their own finance problems, they want fundraising for that, to help the dogs. Which is important, but what I’m more concerned with is building the foundation. Later on you can deal with the administrative stuff, but the lack of foundation is why they’re struggling. We’re building up a new Egypt, why not start from the bottom up? The reason I’m here, this is more than just a protest about animals, it’s because of the revolution. Because, if all the other ministers and people have rights, what about animals? A lot of people say, “Wait, wait, It’s not the right time.” Wait for what? The Animal People need to focus on the Animal Laws.

ADS: How long have you lived in Egypt?

MAC: Eleven years. And my heart is Egypt. Originally I’m from New Jersey, East Coast. I became a Muslim in 1999 — and I lost my job. They didn’t want me to wear a hijab. It happened around September 11th. My birthday is September 11th, you know, 1960. It has nothing to do with 2001. But for some reason… One piece of material and I get discriminated. I was sick of being harassed for that, and so I said, I want my freedom! I actually came to Egypt for freedom. But now the people in Egypt think they need freedom — and they do — but the thing is, they are freer here than in America….

A shout from the crowd: [Shouting] We enter the zoo in half an hour! The officers leave their duties at half-past one. One o’clock we enter and deliver the demands.

ADS: Are we going to pay the admissions to the zoo?

MAC: I don’t know, I’ll see what The Leader wants. You see, one of the girls is very bossy and she’s bossing us around like she’s the leader. So I don’t listen to her. Whatever she says, she’s the boss. She’s not the boss. She’s treating me like I’m a secretary. She told me to organize her papers, in Arabic, I don’t even know what they say. I said, No way. We had an argument. She has a personal friendship with the Minister. I was supposed to be on her committee but yesterday, behind my back, she had tea with the minister. So it’s like, if she says we have to leave the Zoo, it’s because the Minister has told her to. It’s corruption. It’s internal corruption within the movement. She’s friends with all the ministers we want to step down! A lot of people here have their issues with each other. We actually had someone from the Humane Society in America come here to Egypt to try to unite all the shelters because they were arguing. We can’t help the animals if we’re all just in-fighting. But we came together for this event, as the Animal People. It’s very amazing actually, that we got people who didn’t talk to each other for years to work together. But the one thing in common, in our own opinions, is that we all love the animals. It’s not like someone loves apes or we-don’t-care-about-apes. We’re here for the animals, that’s what was meant to be. A lot of the activists are into politics, into playing blackball. Like, “I have a protest tomorrow and if you negotiate with me, I’ll call it off.” I’m not into that. I don’t like politics. I’m American. But my husband, who’s Egyptian, is into it. He slept at Tahrir.

ADS: Does he get involved in animal rights?

MAC: No, he doesn’t like animals too much. He was for the other revolution.

We enter the zoo, after the zoo security confiscates the protest signs. Half the activists leave for the police station to file a report against the zoo for the illegal seizure of private property.

A young man: The zoo security’s saying we’re spies. This is Egypt.

Dog shelter-owner Amina Abaza: They do not notice that we care about the animals. They are saying, “We are spies, we take money from abroad.”

[The young man introduces himself as Abdallah Al Alfy]: I usually work with Dina Zulfikar at AWAR (Animal Welfare Awareness Research Group). But the shelters are divided, and so the last few weeks I’ve been volunteering with ESMA to figure out how to bridge the divide. I want to talk to all the presidents of all the movements and try to form some sort of coalition.

ADS: How old are you?

AAA: Twenty-one. The only good thing about getting older is that now I can get a gun. After all the stuff that’s happened here…

ADS: Did you participate in the protests?

AAA: No, I was against this revolution from the start. Here’s the thing, people accuse me of being pro-Mubarak, I was never pro-Mubarak, I’m just against this particular revolution and how it’s conducted. In a sense, I’m pro-Mubarak even though I hated him throughout his whole regime. This time he was right — I never figured I’d be on his side, ever, but they put me on his side.

ADS: What solution would you have preferred?

AAA: The solution would have been a general strike. Striking and protesting are two different things. When you strike you just stay home, you don’t stop anything, you don’t give anyone a chance to do anything, but at the same time, you stop the country from running so you get what you want. But you avoid the violence. And if the revolution was really a majority thing, then enough people would have joined the strike and they would have yielded eventually. Everyone should have just said, “I’m staying home in my bed, I’m not moving…” [Gestures at all of the trash littering the zoo] With just a little bit of work, this place could be so much better. The pricing of the tickets is part of the problem, it’s so cheap, 19 cents, so people treat it like this, but people can’t afford to go other places. If you raise the prices here, all the newspapers are going to slaughter the Ministry, and then the Ministry is going to be in trouble with the whole Cabinet, and then the Cabinet is going to be in trouble with the President. But now there is no President! So it’s all fucked.

Dina Zulfikar: [Running around and shouting] The chimp is held in the monkey’s enclosure! Does anybody want to say hi to Mousa?

ADS: Who is Mousa?

AAA: Mousa’s a chimp. She’s a chimp, she’s locked by herself, I don’t know why. We’ve demanded that she should be locked with another chimp, at least. But here we have this culture of, “Slip it under the next guy’s door, I didn’t see any demands, I didn’t sign anything…”

We enter the zookeeper’s office, next to the lone chimp. A screaming match ensues between the activists and the Zoo Minister’s secretaries. They threaten to call the police, and zoo security forces us to leave. Abdallah and I get into his car and drive to the Ministry of Agriculture in Dokki. Stuck in traffic, we talk about the fantasy novel Abdallah is writing, set in a parallel Egypt, and resume our conversation about his wanting to buy a gun since the revolution.

AAA: Is your seatbelt buckled? Good. I don’t want any Americans dying in my car. I don’t carry weapons with me, because I have a temper. Twice I nearly killed someone. So I wasn’t armed in the zoo, no. But if you’d like I can teach you how to use the quarterstaff today. I have a matching set of steel broomsticks here in the car and they do the trick, they work just fine for beginners. During the revolution I used to go out every night, armed to the teeth with weapons I never had to use. We had vigilante patrol teams all over Cairo because the police were downtown and looters were running wild everywhere. People in our area caught gunmen and all that. The only guy I ever caught personally was someone who had apparently ran away from a mental hospital. But in the end, we all do the things we do because they fulfill a certain feeling. People worship God either because they feel fulfilled doing it, or they’re worried they’ll go to hell if they don’t. Lovers, say, they try to please each other, whether platonically or… yeah. It’s an ego boost.

ADS: So you’re saying there’s no such thing as a purely altruistic act?

AAA: Yes. I’ll tell you what, if I had a kid, and I did right by that kid, it would be because I feel good doing it. If you talk from the perspective of evolutionary biology, there is this concept that all species survive because they want to pass on their genes to the next generation. And they want to give that next set of genes they’re propagating the best chance they have to survive, so that eventually their genes can dominate the gene pool. That’s it. That’s the ultimate goal.

ADS: So why are you studying pharmaceuticals?

AAA: I like science a lot, and I wanted to study medicine to be a veterinarian, but I hate messing around with corpses and dead bodies, of animals especially. I don’t particularly have a problem with humans dying, I mean, humans die. I can see a dead body. Just don’t ask me to start… doing things to it. That’s why I decided not to be a vet.

We enter a restaurant near the Ministry of Agriculture called The Roastery and join twenty other animal activists for lunch before a select group of them will meet with His Excellency Mr. Ayman Abu-Hadid. Everyone at the table argues about what most needs to change in the animal welfare system in Egypt. “The law! The law!“ Amina Abaza screams in my ear.

AAA: [leaning over toward me] Would you ever kill someone?

ADS: Of course not.

AAA: Not even in revenge?

ADS: No. Why, would you?

AAA: I wouldn’t think twice about killing someone who had wronged me. Fine, then. Who is the dearest person to you in your life?

ADS: My parents, my brother…

AAA: Pick one. Ok, your father. What does he look like? Hair? No hair?

ADS: Curly gray hair, balding…

AAA: What does he usually wear?

ADS: Grays, dark blues… earth tones?

AAA: Visualize he is sitting here. [Gestures to the empty seat next to me.] Really picture it. [Grabbing a knife from the silverware on the table, Abdallah lunges at the empty space and violently stabs my father.]

AAA: What do you do now? I am walking away!

ADS: At this point, I think I’d be more concerned with ministering to his wounds. Plus, how could I attack you? I am not armed…

AAA: [Hands me a fork] Now you are.

Amina Abaza interrupts to scold me for not finishing my club sandwich. I promise to take it in a doggy bag, and lunch soon adjourns. I return home with soggy slices of chicken and veal, leftovers from the revolution at the Zoo.