The smile on the face of the tiger?
Last Friday I put my hand into the mouth of a hippopotamus and have lived to tell the tale. The scene of this act of consummate bravery was Cairo zoo, where under the gleeful instructions of a couple of zoo keepers I was given a bundle of hay and told to insert it into the beast’s wide-open jaws.
One of my first posts on this blog was a complaint about the political correctness of the zoo at San Diego, where disabled animals are treated with all the respect of their fully-abled brothers (i.e. they are not put down), and where everything is done for the best of all ecological reasons. The Cairo zoo goes to the other extreme. It managed to up-stage even my own old-fashioned ideas of “animals as spectacle”. The biter bit, you might say.
The high point (or may be the low point) was not in fact the hippo, but when my husband and son – the female members of the party having chickened out by this point – were given a two month old lion cub to hold. Its mother looked on, apparently unfazed.
We had not come to Cairo to visit the zoo. I had a date in the Archaeological Museum to see some Roman mummy portraits. But on the first morning, discovering the zoo just opposite our hotel, we decided to acclimatize by paying a visit. It was a holiday and the place was full of local children having a great time – which partly consisted of climbing over the enclosure fences, with only very limited supervision (how they got out again was not clear).
The animal handling did not come free. The zoo entrance fee itself was about a pound for the four of us, plus a little bit extra for the nuts to feed the animals (yes, feeding is encouraged). But any obvious group of foreigners is quickly whisked off by a keeper to a “behind the scenes” tour, for baksheesh amounting to 15 or 20 quid: lion stroking, monkey tickling, hippo feeding (we passed up the crocodile patting). Rather less than the entrance to London zoo, where no such activities are allowed.
The truth is that it was exciting, scary and disconcerting. Even when the big cats are confined in their cages, being eyeball to eyeball, within inches of them, when the locks don’t seem all that secure, is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is much reflection about their living conditions. This is the animal equivalent of a Victorian slum. One tiger had apparently been living in cage, perhaps six foot by six foot, for twenty years. Make your own moral mind up.
As we came to see in the end, though, the social dynamics were a bit more complicated than we had imagined to start with. Tip-toeing along right in front of those loosely secured tiger cages, I didn’t at first think to turn round (keep the devils in your sights, I thought). When I did, I discovered -- of course – what seemed like hundreds of kids, all standing at a safe distance looking at us, looking at the tigers.
True, we were paying for this ringside seat. But we were also paying to be a delicious spectacle for the locals, who were much enjoying the sight of the silly foreigners scared half to death – and were taking hundreds of photographs.
For them, I suspect, it was a much more gripping show than even the animals could provide.