Hong Kong zoo must be shut down for the world city to live up to its name

Jason Baker says officials need to heed increased public awareness of the suffering of captive animals and listen to wildlife experts who recommend they be phased out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 9:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 5:36pm

Hong Kong is known for its business acumen and progressive ideas. It is particularly odd, then, that city officials continue to support one business model that is as antiquated as it is untenable: displaying animals in zoos.

The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens today has more than 300 animals jammed into only 40 enclosures. Intelligent and sensitive primates such as orangutans are held in barren, decrepit cages. Flamingos are packed together so tightly that they can scarcely move.

Aware of the problem, the government officials who run the zoo reached out to multiple wildlife organisations for advice. It’s now been nearly two years since that coalition of experts recommended that the zoo phase out all animals and stop its breeding programmes, yet virtually nothing has changed. Worse, the zoo reportedly wants to increase its captive population.

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Meanwhile, around the world, zoos are in decline. The Buenos Aires Zoo has decided to shut down after 140 years and, heeding public opinion, Costa Rica is working to close the Simón Bolívar Zoo. In the UK, the Black Isle Wildlife Park will be closing in response to animal welfare concerns.

This decline is driven largely by increased public awareness about the suffering of animals used for human entertainment. We know that the lives of animals in zoos are so unbearable that many have mental breakdowns and engage in self-destructive behaviour, such as pulling out their own fur and pacing endlessly. Some zoos have even resorted to administering antidepressants and other drugs to reduce animals’ mental distress.

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We also know that zoos don’t teach us anything. It’s impossible to learn anything about natural behaviour from animals who live in such unnatural settings.

The Hong Kong zoo must, on some level, be attuned to this increased public awareness. After Siu Fa, a jaguar imprisoned at the zoo for 19 years, died in 2008, officials opted not to replace her. Today, the zoo has no big cats.

Zoos have no place in a civilised society – the obvious distress of the animals serves only to drive people away. Officials should transform the zoo into a botanical garden. And visitors would still be able to see animals – from butterflies to birds – in their rightful natural environment. Twin orangutans Wan Wan and Wah Wah, who sit listlessly in a pen every day, should be released to their natural home in Borneo. Other animals should be sent to wildlife sanctuaries that can cater to their needs. Peta stands ready to assist, from finding animals a safe home in a sanctuary to helping guide the transition.

Jason Baker is vice-president of international campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) Asia