Zoos tend not to be an issue to get people steamed. My colleague expressed indifference when I gave him a mini-rant about the keeping of animals at the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, in response to the freedom-loving gibbon that had fled while its cage was being cleaned. It was a disgrace in this day and age to imprison creatures in such cramped conditions, I raged, and especially so near the heart of a polluted city. Used to my sudden outbursts, he made a half-hearted attempt at making an argument by finding a statistic that 10,000 children visited last year as part of their studies, before admitting no particular attachment or otherwise and then getting back to reading his stack of papers.
I have to admit that the zoo also rarely crosses my mind. It is not a happy place to visit; the creatures seeming so miserable in their small and barren enclosures. The few times I have been there, the atmosphere was less about enthralment than crude entertainment, with visitors urging the primates to do primate-like things, which is apparently to whoop and swing from bar to bar. Despite the zoo being so close to Central and, from afar, a green oasis in a concrete jungle, I have done my best to avoid it.
The animals, given a chance, apparently would, too. Two weeks ago, an endangered buff-cheeked gibbon scurried through a door left open while its cage was being cleaned and made a run for the hills. It tasted freedom of sorts for two hours along Robinson and Old Peak roads before being tranquilised by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The words 'escape' and 'capture' that featured so prominently in the media reports brought vividly home the reality of the ape's circumstances; it and the other creatures at the zoo are prisoners.
Every zoo is like that, of course, but not in so obvious a way. Like its counterparts, the zoo claims to be dedicated to education, research and ensuring the survival of endangered species, although I wonder about its effectiveness in these areas. Its veterinarian work and hygiene are of an acknowledged high standard. But where it obviously fails is meeting the provision of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which it is a member, to recreate the exhibited creature's natural environment as much as possible. Our zoo fails the code with its restrictive cages, green painted concrete floors and metal bars where there should be tree trunks and branches. Nowhere to be seen are the moats, cleverly hidden fences and natural greenery of properly conceived zoos in Singapore and elsewhere. Those zoos have well and truly laid to rest the 19th century concept of keeping creatures purely for amusement. That Hong Kong's animals have not been neutered, meaning that even more can be brought into such an environment, is incomprehensible.
If education, research and species' preservation are truly our aims, there are better and more effective means. Television, videos, the internet and overseas travel can do a much better and more humane job. We can use influence and put resources into preserving natural habitats. As for our sad little zoo, the animals should be moved to places where they will not be psychologically tortured and it should be shut down.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post