They say a zebra can’t change his stripes.
But a zoo in Egypt apparently figured it could change a couple of donkeys to pass off the common pack animals as their more exotic equine cousins. All it took was some paint.
The incident came to light this week after Mahmoud Sarhan, an Egyptian student, posted some suspicious photos of the animals on Facebook that quickly went viral. Among the giveaways: the animals’ small stature, big floppy ears and some stripes that had visibly smudged in the heat.
Never mind that Egypt’s struggling economy on Thursday registered its biggest growth in a decade. The local news that made headlines around the world was, as the New York Post put it: “Egyptian zoo busted painting donkeys to look like zebras.”
Vets and animal rights groups quickly weighed in on zebragate on social media, noting that the creatures Sarhan photographed at Cairo’s International Garden clearly lacked the black snouts and distinctive mane patterns of African zebras.
“The ears are rounded, not oblong and pointy, and of course zebras have black skin, answering that age-old question of them being black with white stripes,” opined Alex Adams, a wildlife biologist and researcher at Colorado State University to the London Independent.
“No reputable animal care facility would subject a skittish animal like a donkey to the stress of being restrained and sprayed with chemicals like paint,” said the animal rights group PETA in a statement to CNN. “PETA hopes that Cairo authorities are fully investigating this matter.”
But a local official insisted the animals, which can be seen in a video, were the real deal.
“The zebra is real, not a local donkey, and not painted,” Maj. Gen. Mohamed Sultan, who oversees Cairo zoos, told local reporters. He added that the animals are well looked after and inspected regularly to ensure their welfare.
This is not the first time Egypt’s zoos have gotten bad press. In 2013 a baby giraffe named Roqa died when its neck got caught in some wire after being harassed by visitors at Cairo’s notorious Giza Zoo. The zoo opened with great fanfare in 1891 but has been chronically underfunded and widely criticized in recent years, and local wags suggested the giraffe intentionally hanged itself.
Egypt has a complicated relationship with donkeys, which are as much a part of the country’s culture as the pyramids, going back to when the ancients domesticated them around 3000 BC. Even today, donkeys cart produce in the countryside and haul garbage in the capital, but they are also among the country’s most mistreated creatures, say animals rights groups.
A donkey made headlines in Egypt a few years ago when it managed to breach several lines of security at Cairo International Airport, causing a frenzy among Egyptians on social media and giving rise to jokes that the mule wanted to emigrate.
Naturally, the internet was alight with jokes and commentary on this latest embarrassing animal story, with many wondering aloud why zoo officials would go to such lengths. “Zebras live in Africa just like Egyptians,” said one. “Can’t they just buy one from Kenya?” asked another. Disc jockeys at a radio station in St. Louis even composed a song called “Donkeys Painted Like Zebras.”
In Tijuana, burros have long been painted as zebras — but tourists who pose for pictures with them are in on the joke.
This incident wasn’t the first time a zoo has tried pass off a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were. In 2013, visitors to a Chinese zoo were shocked to learn that the creature labeled as an African lion was actually a Tibetan mastiff when it started barking. And in 2009, zookeepers at a facility in Gaza used masking tape and hair dye to disguise donkeys as zebras to please children. But in both cases officials owned up to the switches.
One person offered that since the word for “donkey” and “zebra” is the same in Egyptian Arabic, perhaps the situation isn’t entirely black and white.
But others called the deception par for the course. As one quipped on Twitter: “If a bloodthirsty army general can be seen as a democratic leader, why wouldn’t a donkey be presented as a zebra?”
Scheier is a special correspondent.