CAIRO, Egypt — An Egyptian family asked to play with the lions. Two dollars, said the zookeeper. The mother nodded and the zoo employee motioned to them to come to a side door away from the row of cages and mesmerized onlookers.
The zookeeper looked nervous, peering up and down the sidewalk. Seeing none of the authorities, he swung the door open and beckoned the family of four inside. By the time the family had entered, the zookeeper had grabbed a lion cub and hoisted it into the arms of the startled teenage son. Another lion cub looked on from a few feet away.
The family posed for photos. The cub snarled with displeasure.
Soon enough, the daughter had spotted Lula, one of the zoo's tigers, and the others followed her out the door, though not before handing the zookeeper $2 — or three times what he might otherwise make in a day.
Welcome to Cairo's Giza Zoo, the largest of Egypt's seven official zoos — a sprawling park stuck in the middle of Africa's largest city.
Founded in 1891, the zoo was once one of Africa's finest. But in the last decade, it has fallen on hard times.
The Giza Zoo regained notoriety in 2004 when it was expelled from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) for its failure to pay group dues, its substandard results during a WAZA zoo inspection, and the inhumane killing by Egyptian authorities of two gorillas thought to be infected with the Ebola virus, zoo officials said.
The zoo's troubles didn't end there, though. In 2006, a number of birds died at the zoo of avian flu. Two years later, two men broke into the zoo at night and slaughtered two camels.
In its last inspection, WAZA also issued a list of complaints for the zoo. It cited the park for using chains to restrain elephants and criticized the small enclosures used to house many animals.
There may be little the zoo can do, though, on these fronts.
"It's a closed zoo. We have no room to expand!" said Nabil Sidki, the zoo's director, several 20-story buildings looming on the zoo's perimeter behind him.
"And we must keep the old monuments. They are important to our history."
Indeed, much of the zoo has been preserved because of various gardens and relics that sit on the grounds.
An informal give-and-take between zookeepers and patrons also presents its share of risks.
Customers with cash can gain intimate access to almost any animal. Zookeepers rely on these exchanges to supplement their own meager salaries.
Hugging bears, posing with elephants, holding lion cubs, feeding seals and provoking tigers are all part of a normal afternoon there.
"This is illegal," said Saad El Gazar, director of medical care and treatment. "When we hear about it, we either transfer them or fire them."
But even El Gazar acknowledged that given their modest salaries, zookeepers had little other recourse.
Despite all the problems, however, it appears that the Giza Zoo is the midst of a tidal change.
"We have a master plan," said Sidki. "The final plan is to join WAZA, maybe by next year."
"The first step to join WAZA is to join a regional organization. In our case, we joined PAAZAB last November."
PAAZAB is the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
El Gazar said the zoo has installed new cages for the bears and a paddock for the lions. A new elephant house and monkey display are in the planning stages.
He also noted that an administrative shift had given the zoo's fortunes a lift. Since 2007, he said, the government had appointed more reform-minded people to serve in positions of leadership there. They were the kind of people, he said, that would allow the Giza Zoo to regain entry to WAZA.
The changes come at a time when Egypt is moving rapidly to expand the Egyptian tourism industry, already the greatest contributor to GDP. The Ministry of Tourism has announced plans to increase the number of tourists visiting the country from 12.3 million in fiscal year 2007-2008 to 14 million by 2011.
Egypt's ramshackle antiquities museum, home to such pieces as King Tutankhamen's burial mask, will be replaced with a new structure near the Pyramids. And the government has pledged to relocate the hundreds of vendors that sell knick-knacks around some of Egypt's greatest historical sites.
Change at the zoo, Sidki said, was just a piece of this larger puzzle.
And at least for the moment, it seems that the new administration is committed.
"I would love to see the zoo as a good place because I love the animals," El Gazar said. "But I can't do it by myself."