RSPCA in call to close down zoo

THE RSPCA has called for a new $5.2 million jaguar enclosure in the Zoological and Botanical Gardens to be scrapped and has joined green groups in suggesting the zoo should be closed.

RSPCA executive director Tom Creighton said the gardens were too small for a zoo and that the RSPCA was especially concerned for the well-being of its larger animals, the jaguars and orangutans.

''It's an unsuitable site,'' Mr Creighton said yesterday. He defended the zoo's ''caring and dedicated'' staff but was convinced the jaguars and orangutans were suffering mental illness because of their small cages.

Earlier, two Hong Kong environmental groups called on the Urban Council to overturn a decision to upgrade the jaguar enclosure and to instead use the money to find the animals new homes.

Green Power and Earthcare also said the zoo's four jaguars and six orangutans were showing clear signs of insanity, or ''zoochosis''.

''When they [the council] have thought it through I think they will find it's not possible to find a reasonable environment for these animals in Hong Kong,'' said Earthcare spokesman Dr John Wedderburn.

Mr Creighton said the new 600-square-metre jaguar enclosure, four times larger than the existing one, would still not be large enough for animals that normally ranged over hundreds of square kilometres in the wild.

''I realise that people who look after the zoo are very dedicated people and do the best with what they've got, but at the same time we don't feel such animals should be confined in such a small enclosure,'' he said.

''They display stereotyped behaviour - the pacing and waving from side to side. The experts claim that this is a sign of mental illness in animals, so obviously they are suffering mental illness.'' The zoo's honorary curator, Dr Kenneth Searle, said he was ''very surprised'' the RSPCA had decided to oppose the new jaguar enclosure and described as ''rubbish'' claims that any of the zoo's animals were suffering.

Dr Searle said the zoo was highly regarded around the world and that the RSPCA's own veterinarian had in the past declared the existing jaguar enclosure to be satisfactory.

''Watch those jaguars playing in the water and I defy you to tell me they are mad,'' he said. ''Big cats pace in the wild. The only difference is, in a cage, they have to pace back in the same direction.'' The RSPCA agreed with Green Power and Earthcare that the jaguars could be better housed at Sheli Lake Zoo at Shenzhen, where animals from Lai Chi Kok Zoo were moved this month.

Green Power activist Simon Chau Sui-cheong said the orangutans should be moved to Malaysia's Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Sabah, where captive-born orangutans have been successfully introduced into the wild.

Work on the new zoo enclosure is expected to be completed by September next year.