IT all started so well. Goats and deer ran free among woods and grasslands. Hippopotamuses wallowed in pleasant ponds. And pelicans and cranes stretched their wings in landscaped lakes. For a while it appeared to the small international delegation of animal lovers that, in the Sheli Lake zoo in Shenzhen, the Chinese authorities had really managed to build a wildlife sanctuary that put the wildlife first. This $100-million resort was to be the new home for most of the animals from Hong Kong's highly criticised Lai Chi Kok zoo, which closed on Saturday, and the representatives of animal welfare groups had high hopes for the new park. But as the air-conditioned safari bus passed the contented camels, and drove towards the elephant enclosure, the first sounds of dissent were heard. ''Why does that bull elephant have chains around its feet?'' demanded British actress and zoo-campaigner Virginia McKenna. ''And why are they all stuck in the concrete compound?'' The guide, who just called himself Louis, explained that the bull was a bit ''mischievous'', but that all the elephants would later be able to move around a grassy area nearby, once the electric fence had been completed in time for the park's opening on September 29. His claims that they often used their water pool were rapidly disproved by Ms McKenna, who went to investigate, and discovered that the pool had never been filled. As ''automatic gates'', apparently operated by a man in a treehouse, opened and shut with a clang behind it, the bus drove past several concrete-floored aviaries, towards what Louis thought to be the main attraction - the panda house. Some of the pandas were already housed in an area described by Ms McKenna as ''sterile and featureless'' - lined with red tiles and completely open to public view through a large glass window. But for most of the members of the delegation visiting the park yesterday, the most lasting image was the face of a baby snow leopard leaping up and clawing at the bars in the door of the tiny cell it was being kept in until its new enclosure was ready. ''Its eyes are still bright and lively: if they leave it in there for much longer, they will glaze over and it will start to go mad,'' predicted a member of the RSPCA executive council, Dr John Wedderburn. Next door, a giant panda slumped on the tiles of his small room; in another, two majestic golden monkeys were squatting listlessly in their own dirt. ''That was the most disappointing, disturbing part of this park,'' said a shaken Ms McKenna. ''Those cages are as bad as anything we saw at Lai Chi Kok; I can't believe they would do this. ''Most of the sanctuary is excellent - and even in Europe would be quite revolutionary, in China it is exceptionally good. ''I just hope and pray that they will extend the concept to the aviary, the panda enclosure and the holding cages. ''Most of the sanctuary is a huge improvement over Lai Chi Kok,'' said Asian representative for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Jill Robinson. ''In 80 per cent of cases they have made a genuine commitment to animals; but they detract from that by sanctioning such sad conditions for a few of the species.''