Thursday, July 23, 2015

Crimes Against The Cute, Part 2: Shame On Chinese Zoos

Alligator at Beijing Zoo.  
David Castor/wikimedia commons
Over the past few years, there have been sporadic reports on animal abuses at Chinese zoos. However, if you've ever visited one, then you know that a Chinese zoo in itself is animal abuse. 

Back in 1998, I visited a Chinese zoo in Chengdu. It gave me nightmares for weeks. Elephants and big cats were rocking back in forth in their barren concrete enclosures, clearly suffering from "zoochosis". Monkeys sat in rotting metal cages, scratching themselves and masturbating until their skin was raw. Chinese visitors spat at the animals and threw packaged junk food into cages. Meanwhile, in the reptile exhibit, it was obvious that many animals were long dead. Their carcasses were already furry with mold.

Siberian tiger at Beijing Zoo.
Kallgan/wikimedia commons
But the most surreal part was seeing Chinese children enjoying a "fun" day at the zoo, cloaked in a smog so thick that it was hard to see where the zoo's concrete walls ended and the brown air began. How could the children know any better about the humane treatment of animals? Their parents were handing them the bottles of milk to pour on the bears, zoo workers themselves were encouraging the children to pose for pictures with monkeys on leashes. Back then, everyone already knew that China was barreling headstrong into becoming a leading world power. It was frightening that the citizens of this country treated other life forms with such horrendous – bordering on psychotic – disrespect. 

Brown bear at Beijing Zoo.
By Pete Stewart from Perth /Wikimedia Commons
I sent a fax to the World Wide Fund for Nature; they replied that they had heard similar reports but were powerless to do anything. I left China depressed, knowing that these creatures were trapped in this horror-film existence until they died. I told everyone I knew about what I saw. In hindsight I know I should have taken pictures, but in the moment, it felt perverse to document such suffering, as if my camera would judge me.  

Seventeen years have gone by. Last December, Buzzfeed ran a story based on photographer M. Scott Brauer's series called "Small Concrete Boxes" and it's clear to me that exactly nothing has improved in Chinese zoos in two decades. Recent traveler reviews of Chinese zoos, like this one below, are further proof that the abusive conditions are still widespread. 

"The birds were in an even worse condition. Many had completely plucked their own feathers from their entire chest and neck..."
An excerpt from a review of Beijing Zoo by Tom M, TripAdvisor user.

There are 29 zoos in China, only 2 of which are qualified members of the World Association for Zoos and Aquariums, and those 2 are both located in Hong Kong. As for the mainland, based on reviews from travelers on TripAdvisor in Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, animals across the country appear to be suffering like the animals I saw in Chengdu.

The protection of animals in China has a larger meaning, and not only because our treatment of animals bleeds into our treatment of other humans. China country is home to 20% of the world's population. Their influence is so great that how they eat their lunch could literally change our weather (China is destroying its own forests by using 20 million trees each year just for disposable chopsticks.). From investment behavior to human rights to environmental policy, the daily decisions that China makes can mean life or death for entire communities, economies, or the human species. 

Depressed panda at Beijing zoo.
Carla.antonini/wikimedia commons
Take the use of palm oil, for instance. We can be sure that China uses an astronomical amount of palm oil for food, cosmetic, and industrial purposes. But the production of palm oil has been named a major factor in the acceleration of climate change. It has been blamed for disastrous deforestation in South East Asia, loss in carbon dioxide-absorbing rain forest, and the demise of endangered species like the Sumatran elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, and orangutan. This destruction of habitat should not be taken lightly, as we are currently living the Sixth Great Extinction, a mass wipe-out of life on Earth, which scientists say can only possibly be averted through massive efforts to protect biodiversity.

But what is biodiversity to someone who has no empathy for other living creatures? What is biodiversity to a child who has been taught that a tiger can be kept alone in a barren concrete cage, so depressed that its skin has broken out in sores? Humans are born hard-wired to feel empathy, but it still needs to be taught, practiced, and developed. Children learn empathy by example and by what is socially acceptable

Can we get China, one fifth of the world's population, to care enough about all species that they can make economic decisions that support life, not kill it? Can we get every child in China to understand that all species on Earth require care and protection, and our well-being depends on it?

The starting point would be in drastically raising the standards of Chinese zoos. Then the family outing would be the opportunity for children to see that the government and its workers dedicate money, resources, knowledge, and time to preserving endangered species. Children would learn that biodiversity is fragile, that we are all connected, and that we have to act wisely to ensure that life forms thrive.

Macaca mula at Beijing Zoo.
JZ85/wikimedia commons 

Have you visited a Chinese zoo? Tweet your pictures with #ChineseZoo to raise awareness of the horrible conditions of animals in China. 

And I'll leave you with a quote from the Pope that summarizes what I mean.

"We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity."
– Pope Francis 

Related posts:
Crimes Against The Cute, Part 1: Allan Gate

You may also be interested in:
National Geographic: Photos Show Sad Plight For Africa Elephants Lifted To China
Understanding Modern China Blog: Animal Cruelty in China

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