China’s terrible zoos and why they’re still thriving

A spate of news stories about poor conditions at parks across the country has reignited the debate over the rights of animals in captivity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 9:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 11:31pm

A donkey thrown into a tiger enclosure to be eaten alive. A brown bear so malnourished it looks like a bag of bones. Siberian tigers so obese they are mocked by visitors. A crocodile living alongside piles of rubbish in a dried-up pond, and a snake lying dead in its tank, unnoticed by its keeper.

All of these stories come from Chinese zoos and animal parks, which over the years have made headlines both at home and abroad. Several of them date back just weeks.

Despite the mountain of evidence against them, animal rights activists say most badly run zoos and wildlife parks are not being called to account for the maltreatment of their animal charges as their businesses continue to flourish amid a booming domestic tourism market.

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“I’ve never imagined the kind of life the animals in such parks are living,” said Li Nan, a visitor who witnessed a live donkey being pushed into a tiger enclosure earlier this month at the Yancheng Safari Park in Changzhou, eastern China’s Jiangsu province.

“The incident really opened my eyes and made me think about the issue [of zoos’ maltreatment of animals].”

A video of the incident, in which a group of men is seen hauling a donkey from a truck and pushing it off a wooden ramp into the moat around the big cats’ enclosure, went viral online. One of the big cats quickly pounced on the stricken beast as another clawed at its back and head. The horrific ordeal lasted about half an hour before the donkey died. The zoo has yet to face any penalty for the incident.

Government-run zoos are ubiquitous in Chinese cities, while wildlife parks, most of which are privately owned, have flourished in recent years amid rising demand.

Guangzhou, capital of south China’s Guangdong province, has three wildlife parks, while authorities in the Jiangsu provincial capital Nanjing said earlier this year they would open three new parks next year.

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Despite the scale of the industry, the living conditions of creatures inside China’s animal facilities are a cause for concern, according to Dr Sun Quanhui, a senior scientific adviser at World Animal Protection China, a non-profit organisation.

While zoos, which are usually run by local governments, tend to be better supervised than private wildlife parks, the animals’ living conditions are still worrisome, he told the Post.

“Let’s just give the example of how beasts of prey are kept. In almost every Chinese zoo, we see them in cement cages or behind steel bars, which to some extent is considered maltreatment,” Sun said.

“Some are species that naturally live in groups, but they’re often isolated, which also causes them huge psychological distress.”

Sun said he blames China’s lack of laws to adequately address the issue. The country has a wildlife protection law that classifies wildlife according to their scarcity, but it there is no legislation to ensure the rights of other animals.

What happens inside China’s zoos is pretty much unsupervised, mainly due to overlaps between different government agencies, Sun said.

While the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development oversees government-owned zoos, wildlife parks come under the remit of the State Forestry Bureau, while the fishery bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for aquariums.

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Due to a lack of legislation and oversight, zoos are often free from legal responsibilities, he said.

“In reality, no one would actually ask how the zoos are managing the animals or how they die.”

Despite improvements at some zoos in large cities like Beijing in recent years – including increasing the amount of vegetation and building new areas for animals to escape the prying eyes of the public – most others have made little progress, Sun said.

And the situation at wildlife parks fare even worse.

“The threshold for opening a wildlife park is very low,” he said. “And when a park goes broke, its animals are left to fend for themselves, which means they could end up eating each other, or even attacking their keepers.”

According to media reports the time, more than 10 tigers died “abnormally” in a Shenyang wildlife park in late 2009 and early 2010 as the owners had no money to feed them. A member of staff was seriously injured by a tiger and the big cats regularly fought with one other.

In the case of the donkey in Jiangsu, the animal was thrown to the tigers after a dispute between the park’s owners and its employees. Angered by a lack of profit, the shareholders ordered workers to round up some of the animals for sale. When the staff refused, the owners sacrificed the donkey to “save on animal feed”, Chinese media reported.

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The lack of appropriate animal protection laws in China have left animal rights activists helpless except to “condemn animal maltreatment from a moral perspective”, said Tong Yanfang, a college lecturer and animal welfare advocate in Hangzhou, capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province.

“We can only try to persuade people using common sense and referring to animal welfare laws in Western countries,” Tong said, adding that public awareness in China of how to treat animals was still very low.

“For children and many adults who lack judgement, a wrong perception has been built that animals are there for the entertainment of humans. When they see animals perform in a zoo, they won’t consider how the animals acquired those skills,” he said.

At the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, which has repeatedly come under fire over the years for its treatment of animals, a 50-minute show featuring performances including dancing elephants and bicycle-riding monkeys has been “the most popular” among visitors, according to a dog trainer at the park.

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“All the seats to the show are occupied every day,” said the trainer, who asked not to be named. Other regular performances at the park include races between cheetahs and greyhounds, and ostrich-riding contests.

The Shanghai park has frequently made international news over incidents involving its animals. In 2013, a viral video of a bear mauling a monkey after the two fell off their bicycles during a show sparked outrage among animal rights activists.

Similarly, last year, another widely circulated clip showed a tiger cub being forced to pose for photos with young visitors as an employee slapped the animal’s face to get it to open its eyes. And since 2006, five pandas have died from illness at the park, the most recent being a 21-year-old mother and her cub who succumbed to a combination of infection and organ failure last December.

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To date there have been no official announcements or media reports as to what penalties the park might face.

In 2010, China’s State Forestry Administration issued a directive aimed at putting an end to circus acts in state-owned zoos. In privately owned safari parks, however, the regulation carries no weight.

“All these kinds of races are not science education,” said Sun from the World Animal Protection China. “Rather, they send the audience a message of cruelty.”

Beijing-based animal rights activist Leonard Qi, who investigates Chinese zoos for NGOs including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, recalled a case in which he stopped a girl from throwing popcorn at a chimpanzee.

Qi said he was confronted by the girl’s mother, “saying it was none of my business, the mother took the box from the girl, grabbed a handful of popcorn and started throwing it herself at the chimpanzee.”

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But it’s not just visitors who have to be educated on how to treat animals properly. Staff members, too, should be better trained, Qi said.

“When I notified a staff member of the incident, I was told, ‘It’s okay, the chimpanzee actually likes the food. They’re okay as long as visitors don’t throw stones at them,’” Qi said.