Many people mistakenly assume that - just because I'm in Africa - there are wild animals lurking around every corner. The only four-legged creatures I've seen since my winter break at the San Diego Zoo have been cats, dogs and rodents and I thought it was high time to spend a morning at Dakar's municipal park zoo, located adjacent to the Parc Forestier De Hann.
Admission was 350 CFA per person (that's 75 cents each, if you're counting at home), so I decided to splurge and take a "local" with me to help translate in case I had questions. Upon arrival, the zoo was everything you would expect from a municipal zoo that charges 75 cents for admission.
"Disrepair" would be a vast understatement for the conditions. Most cages featured such animal friendly accoutrements as concrete, chipped lead paint and rust. Apparently, the zookeepers are afraid the animals are either going to breed or fight, so most often animals were singularly housed while a potential companion was located directly adjacent in a separate cage. Many cages appeared abandoned. There was no clue as to species of the prior residents as there were no identifying labels on any cages.
In America, zoologists have discovered "marketing" and develop "animal habitats" and "exhibits." These were pretty much prison cells. About the only things missing were a stainless steel toilet and soap on a rope.
The good news is that primates stand a chance of getting a good meal. And that's not because of the staff or the grand municipal budget, but because there's a lady selling bananas, nuts and vegetables in front of the zoo for prices that are comparable to grocery store prices. We bought two bunches of bananas and proceeded to a row of cages where we could feed the monkeys.
One of the monkeys (or chimpanzees or apes or insert identification sign here) had learned a skill that I call "entertaining the tourists." If you waved your hand around in a circular fashion, he would do a pirouette and then a little shuffle-dance before taking a small bow. It was actually the highlight of the day. He was well fed.
Some of the primate cages housed two residents. There would always be one dominant primate who would not allow the other to get any banana. My guide noted, "Now you see how the real Africa works."
Many of the areas that housed larger animals consisted of a simple fence with one access gate. Often, there would be no lock on the access gate. I was tempted to walk in and visit with a water buffalo - who appeared no more scary than a dairy cow - as well as a large animal that looked like a combination of horse and antelope. The "horselope" (seriously, I think I'm going to go back with cardboard signs so the next person will at least know what to call it) was "fenced in", but someone had ripped a hole in his fence that was large enough to enable the creature to stick his head out so visitors could feed him. He was also well fed.
My disappointment with the zoo could not have been more apparent than when we viewed what would have been a major event at any other zoo in the world. A baby lion was recently born (umbilical cord remnant still visible), but there was not a single sign announcing the birth. Also, the young fella was separated from his mother and father and left to sleep alone in a previously abandoned cage.
On that note, I asked my companion, "How do they get enough money to buy food for the lions if they only charge 75 cents admission?" Within moments, we figured out the answer as we drifted into an area that DEFINITELY should have been off-limits to the public and found a small goat farm on-site. While we were admiring the goats, I looked down and saw what I can only describe as "hoof remnants" scattered across the ground. They appeared to have been gnawed off by the lion. I think we were in the lion's feeding area...
One of the funnier moments was viewing "exotic" animals. Think about it: we're in Africa, so what animals might be considered exotic? How about the rare and endangered pigeon? There was an entire section dedicated to this highly regarded fowl.
My friend shuddered when walking past the hyena cage. She told me a story from her youth about how the "magic men" in her village would go into the woods at night and turn themselves into hyenas. Then, they would roam the woods in search of prey. Children, of course, did not go into the woods at night for fear of the hyenas. We did not stay long at the hyena cage.
Generally, I avoid politics and policy on this blog, but I think this a clear, unfortunate example of where government is not properly supporting a public resource. This place should be privatized immediately and be given a chance for success (like the highly successful local game reserve).
All of Dakar would be better off if the government allocated the budget to an organization (non-profit or profit) that could then raise additional funds and run this place like a true educational exhibit. If Dakar wants to attract tourists, a top ranked zoo in West Africa could be a very strong selling point. The bureaucrats could even cap admission at 75 cents for all Senegalese children in exchange for budgetary support.
The biggest worry with my suggestion is that whichever monkey gains control of the place might keep all the bananas for himself rather than do the right thing for the community. Still, he couldn't do much worse than the monkey currently in charge.