In 10 years of visiting zoos and animal parks in China, David Neale has seen a bear punched in the head by a trainer, tigers whose teeth and claws had been removed and hundreds of animals that lived in filthy, unhealthy conditions.
Too many facilities take credit for simply keeping animals alive, while a large number rely on barbaric techniques such as whipping, beating and prodding with metal hooks to control them, said Neale, the animal welfare director of Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group.
“The conditions are appalling,” Neale said recently. “It’s setting the bar at the lowest level.”
In a report released this month by Animals Asia, cases of poor conditions and mistreatment, including the declawing of tigers and bears, were plentiful during the last year at 13 state-run zoos and privately owned safari parks.
Animal welfare activists say the report not only reflects the poor conditions at parks named by the agency, but also suggests that captive animals all across China may be facing conditions that are as bad or worse.
Kati Loeffler, veterinary advisor for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, estimated that there were hundreds of other zoos and parks in China with similar practices and facilities, and thousands of animals facing maltreatment.
“The scenario that Animals Asia describes is unfortunately very typical. But to be honest, these are probably the best conditions there are for animals in China,” Loeffler said, because the zoos and parks named in the report are among the largest and most well-financed in China. “There are many places that are smaller and with less money, and the conditions there, we can only imagine what they are.”
The release of the report followed the deaths of two giant pandas in July. One was accidentally killed by poisonous gas at the Jinan Zoo in Shandong province, and the other’s death at the Beijing Zoo was caused by untreated intestinal complications that went unreported for almost 20 days.
Four months earlier, 11 Siberian tigers at the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in northeastern China starved to death.
After the deaths of the giant pandas, the State Forestry Administration issued a statement criticizing zoo managers for prioritizing profit over the well-being of their animals, causing injury and early death.
“All units should stop misconduct, vulgar advertisement … utilizing animals for performance and engaging in illegal animal products trade,” said the statement, released July 29. The agency asked all zoos to report their progress to provincial governments.
But neither state-owned zoos, which are often underfunded, nor private safari parks are subject to laws on how to treat the animals. Laws protect animals living in the wild but not those in captivity.
A draft of an animal protection law from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a state think tank, is being discussed but may take years to become a mandate, as is customary in China, advocates say. The law would provide basic protection for animals in zoos and safari parks as well as for pets and research subjects.
Although a new protection law would be welcomed by animal welfare advocates, tracking down who caused an animal’s injury or mistreatment may be extremely difficult.
In the Animals Asia report, Shenzhen Safari Park in southern China was cited for having tigers and lions whose teeth had been removed, a practice that causes chronic pain and often leads to severe infection. But park spokesman Zheng Chaolun said the animals arrived that way. They may have come from other parks or circuses where their teeth were removed, he said.
“This is a question of what practices were before” the animals arrived, Zheng said. “We were not the ones who did this to the animals, and it is not something we do today.”
Animal welfare activists said zoos and parks can begin to change by adopting such measures as providing more natural living spaces, better veterinary care and more healthful diets.
Activists also said China must stop allowing humiliating and abusive animal performances. The most common of these performances, they said, are bears riding bicycles or doing acrobatics and tigers hopping through hoops of fire. Others included elephants spinning on their trunks and monkeys balancing on the horns of goats.
At the Beijing Zoo, a popular program that allowed visitors to have their pictures taken with an orangutan was halted this month. According to activists, young or drugged animals were often used for the photo opportunities. The zoo did not respond to requests for interviews.
At the zoo recently, a bear crouched on its hind legs and looked at the visitors above him from a concrete enclosure where there were no trees, no pond or sources of water near him, just plastic bottles, wrappers and a stream of sewage water.
“The conditions aren’t the best, the cages, the smell,” said visitor Jin Guo, who was with her 3-year-old daughter. “But growing up in this city, I always thought that’s how zoos were supposed to be and that animals were just dirty.
“But looking back I do think it would be better if they had a better, more natural place to live,” she said.
Kuo is with The Times’ Beijing Bureau. Tommy Yang in the bureau contributed to this report.