Chinese Zoos – Animal Cruelty or Cultural Ambiguity?

23 Comments

One of the first things ever said to me about Chinese zoos was from an English friend of mine shortly after I first arrived in China. He explained that before I head to any of China’s various “zoo”-like establishments I need to understand that in a country where are limited, don’t expect to see much in the way of animal rights.

He was right.

Chinese zoos are horrible. Even the least empathetic, non-compassionate person would have trouble not feeling a bit bad for any critter that has the misfortune of ending up in these animal asylums.

Impossibly small cages, little to no thought or concern given to proper habitat, mistreatment and mis-feeding by under-educated visitors, and total apathy towards it all by staff are all rife in even the largest Chinese zoos.

I just came across a Daily Mail article (via HHR) entitled “Animals torn to pieces by lions in front of baying crowds: the spectator sport China DOESN’T want you to see” in which the author, Danny Penman, relays his various experiences witnessing animals being thrown to their deaths as food for large cats and entertainment for wide-eyed visitors.

Feeding at Dongbei Tiger ParkThough I’ve not been to either of the parks mentioned (one in Badaling, near Beijing, and one near Guilin), similar “feedings” are practiced at Haerbin’s Dongbei Tiger Forest Zoo, which I have witnessed (see image right).

The Daily Mail article (in an oddly un-journalistic fashion) conveys some of the author’s rather raw anger about the cruelty that he saw and how horrible it was, in one case, to watch a goat be – literally – thrown to the lions.

He then goes on to quote various animal rightists (as opposed to the commie animal leftists) saying that allowing this sort of thing is horrible.

It is absolutely horrible, but let us not confuse anything here – it’s horrible for the cats, not the goats, cows and chickens. Ok, it’s not exactly sweet for them, but they’re going to be food no matter what – whether killed in a back room or flung from a 5m wall, I’m betting if asked they’d have complaints on both counts.

Crying about the torture of an animal being put on display as something eats it just muddles a bigger, and far more important point – the animals that are forced to sit there and be fed this way.

The conditions of the zoo are peripherally mentioned in Penman’s article, but take a back seat to his editorialized commentary on tortured chickens.

Just as he scores points for condemning a circus-esque “animal parade” (and the cruelty it takes to make wild animals behave this way), he negates it for trying to stir up shock and horror by exclaiming, “Astonishingly, the zoo also sells tiger meat and wine produced from big cats kept in battery-style cages.”

Ask yourself where your chicken burger comes from, ya hypocrite.

He then, falsely (if my three years here is of any worth), claims, “Tiger meat is eaten widely in China and the wine, made from the crushed bones of the animals, is a popular drink.”

I think I remember seeing it on the menu at Yonghe Dawang just the other day.

Granted, I’ve seen baijiu that has tiger bones soaking in it, but to say it is a “popular drink” and that the meat is widely eaten … c’mon.

And even if it was, so what? Endangered animals aside, please explain to me the difference between eating one animal over another?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to the issue of animal rights. I was long active in animal rights groups, and a card-carrying (made with plant-based dyes and recycled paper only, of course) vegetarian for nearly a decade because of it. Tree-huggin’ hippie *raises hand*

But that’s not what this article is about, is it.

As much as it seemingly attempts to make points about the terrible treatment animals face in China, what Penman’s “report” actually does is simply perpetuate a hugely hypocritical “us versus them” mentality that allows the folks back home to continue feeling that their cozy little life, culture and country ain’t nuthin’ like them savages abroad.

This is well summed up by one of the article’s quotes (emphasis added):

“Zoos like this make me want to boycott everything Chinese,” says Emma Milne, star of the BBC’s Vets In Practice.

“I’d like to rip out everything in my house that’s made in China. I have big problems with their culture.

“If you enjoy watching an animal die then that’s a sad and disgusting reflection on you.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by their behaviour towards animals, as the value of human life is so low in China.”

How does this chick possibly know what the “value of human life” in China is? Just a bunch of uncivilized degenerates eh Em?

Now, I’m no apologist, no no no. I’m all for throwing one or two of those animal keepers, and certainly any number of the park owners, into the pit of lions for the amusement of the crowds. I just think it’s important to differentiate what are cultural differences and what are cruel and moronic practices.

Feeding animals in a zoo live prey (whether for the amusement of crowds or not) should not be put above the conditions the zoo animals are forced to live in; dining on “lion steaks, bear’s paw, crocodile and several different species of snake” is no different than eating domestic farm animals (again, endangered animals aside); and though there are plenty of ways to kill an animal inhumanely, you’re daft if you think there’s a way to do it “humanely” – so, stop white-washing the carnivorous side of humanity, I’ve steaks to cook.

Talk on Chinese Zoos – Animal Cruelty or Cultural Ambiguity?


23 Comments
  1. Ryan

    “I just think it’s important to differentiate what are cultural differences and what are cruel and moronic practices” I hate to tell you; your are going to catch a lot of heat on this one.

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    Heat from bloggin’ about China? Naw… haha.

    So as there’s no argument on what I meant by that – there are things that are “different” about every culture, but that are inherently “the same” – the example in this post is what we eat. However, there are things that are just stupid and cruel and have nothing to do with “culture”.

    Emma Milne, and by extension, Danny Penman, are trying to blend the two in an effort to dig a deeper ditch between Chinese “culture” and Western “culture”.

    It’s not to say there isn’t a ditch, but it’s not as deep as they’re making out.

  3. The quotes are pretty banal and perhaps Penman over-exaggerates on things like the popularity of tiger wine, but you must know your argument isn’t going to strike a chord with most people. Human beings just aren’t wired the way you wish we were. For instance, the WWF puts a panda on its logo, not a cow, because we tend to care more about rare cute animals than common ugly ones. And, frankly, while I can tolerate the idea of people eating bear paws and snakes, eating the meat of an endangered species like a tiger is fundamentally different from eating a chicken burger. Any “zoo” that would offer up the meat of rare animals like this should be internationally blacklisted and condemned.

    Also, you sidestepped one of the other points Penman raised. It’s one thing for the live goat to be thrown into the lion pit for crowds to watch. Arguably, and in line with what you said, this is just turning the feeding of the lions into a public rather than private affair. But it’s another matter entirely for people to pay money to go “fishing” with chickens and other animals in the zoos. This disgusted me when I heard about it a few months ago, and it can’t be rationalized away as simple cultural difference. Paying to slaughter a live chicken for one’s own amusement is either the product of severe ignorance or reflects a profound moral rot.

    Michael Vick ought to move to China.

  4. I’ve been to the one in Guilin–it was rather depressing. I was more disturbed by the tiger and bear show than anything else there (bear boxing anyone?). At least the pandas in Beijing protect themselves by mauling the schmucks who jump the fence to pet them.

    I’ll definitely agree that tiger meat is NOT widely available or consumed here. Around here I wouldn’t be surprised to find some fake tiger meat though (everything else in the city is).

  5. I already dislike the Daily Mail’s brand of “journalism” intensely, and even more so now that my comment submitted to them has not been registered…so much for freedom of speech in my country.

    I hate zoos in China, I think the treatment of animals here is appalling… but I think that article is on the edge of being disinformation. At the very least it’s poor “journalism”.

    I’m not agreeing about the eating tiger meat thing though. I’m pretty sure all tiger species in China are endangered.

  6. @Tam: The Daily Mail’s “journalism” is my argument more than anything else. Tiger meat is not, and will not be on my menu any time soon.

    And you’re right, all tiger species are endangered.

    However, to play devil’s advocate – tigers kept in battery cages awaiting slaughter are not the cause for their endangerment – in fact, if anything, they may be the solution to it (though, admittedly, a rather retarded one).

    Tiger’s are largely endangered due to loss of habitat, and loss of prey (also related to habitat) – two things I doubt most Chinese zoos have much to do with, whether they’re puttin’ the big cats in a wok or not.

    However, if there’s a demand for consumption, breeding will need to take place – it’s a helluva lot easier, cheaper and more efficient to have a bunch of tigers in a tiger park than it is sending folks out into the jungle to search for the illusive sucker.

    Alright, so you all think I hate tigers now, I don’t. I really don’t. They’re beautiful, magestic animals that I absolutely adore. [Warning: soapbox ahead]

    But I eat meat.

    When I began eating meat again (after the above mentioned 8 years of vegetarianism), I made a little promise to myself that I would always recognize that I am eating an animal – something that was once alive and now isn’t because of me.

    I didn’t put the bolt in its head, but I should be willing to. There’s an ecological responsibility I think we lose when we forget we are killing something for food.

    It’s this desensitized, pre-packaged separation from our food source that allows us to turn a blind-eye to the horrible environmental impact our convenient consumption causes.

    So, no, I don’t want to eat tigers, and, no, I don’t think we should eat tigers (it was just a point for point’s sake) – but I think the difference between eating a tiger (a snake, a dog, cats, rats, kangaroos, crocodiles, … ) and eating something we’ve “domesticated” for food is a lot smaller than popular paradigms allow for.

    And to read as someone uses it to criticize a nation of people and their culture (as if eating tigers at a zoo was somehow part of Chinese culture), it’s just annoying. Stupid and annoying.

  7. The cruelty is not if you kill a cow or tiger to eat. The cruelty is if you are doing a spectacle of it. The cruelty is if you are enjoying it.

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    I’m going to venture a guess that the cow being torn to pieces is only irritated in a minor way that folks are enjoying the spectacle of it.

    By definition “cruel” is to inflict pain and suffering – not the enjoyment of the killing.

  9. Ryan, as before, I have to disagree with you. Isn’t the point of the torture debate in the US not that it does significantly more harm to the victim than the routine features of imprisonment or even execution, but that it changes the soul of the torturer, that it takes us all to a darker place?

    By the same token, cruelty is not wrong simply because of what is done to others but what is done to the person being cruel. Haven’t we often heard, for example, that some killers began their trade by inflicting harm to animals before moving on to people? While no one who goes to one of these slaughterhouse zoos is going to run around killing people afterwards, a crowd delighting in the baser pleasures of cruelty is losing a piece of their humanity. This is why the spectacle of dangling a lamb over lions to the cheers of onlookers proves unsettling to many people.

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    @Matthew Stinson: You’ll have to take the definition up with Websters.

    But I absolutely agree with you that being exposed to, or participating in, cruelty will desensitize a person to that cruelty. Psychology one oh one there.

    Let’s put the image of the dangling lamb aside for a moment, and use the somewhat more common throwing of chickens in the pen with tigers. The chicken gets torn apart, the tigers eat and the crowd is amused at how close they are to these fierce (-ly broken) animals.

    I think most that sympathize with the dangling lamb, will also agree that this is just as cruel a practice.

    And therein lies my argument. How do you gauge cruelty like that? What metric do you use?

    If I watch lions take down a zebra on Wild Planet, is that me supporting and becoming desensitized to cruelty? If I watch my cat playfully kill a mouse, is that cruel?

    My point is nature, by its very essence, fits our definition of “cruel”. We can pretend to pull ourselves out of that equation and call ourselves all sorts of things (civilized, humane, etc.) – but at the end of the day the average person’s lifestyle promotes huge amounts of cruelty at least as “cruel” as the spectacles at Chinese zoos. Yet because we fool ourselves into believing we are something we are not, we quite happily ignore these things, while we raise our fists and cry out about other, more overt and visible, examples.

    My problem is not with what “proves unsettling to many people”, but rather with the selective blindness that those “many people” choose to implement to protect themselves from it.

  11. Ryan, I chose an expansive definition of cruelty because you largely ignored Daniel’s point. Cruelty also always involves some psychological damage to the person being cruel. If there were no psychological effects, many of our moral sanctions against cruel and unusual punishments would fall away.

    Now, watching zebras being eaten by lions in a natural setting is different from choosing to throw a zebra to a lion in a pit, or even more clearly, it’s different from tying a rope to the zebra and holding the rope while the lions maul it. To expand on your media example, I may like watching Reservoir Dogs but that isn’t the same as enjoying torturing someone. In both examples there’s a matter of will involved, as one act is observational while the other is participatory.

    Moreover, you’re right that from, say, a Buddhist/Jainist perspective, our lives are filled with cruelty. I eat things that used to be alive. I step on (and exterminate) bugs. I create pollution that harms others in this generation and the next. I perpetuate all this cruelty for the sake of existing. The point where I draw the line, however, is in making cruelty part of my entertainment.

    Finally, the debt we owe to each other and to other living things is to avoid cruelty for cruelty’s sake, and I cannot accept one cruelty just because I suffer from the “guilt” of enjoying a good steak now and then, nor does it make all of the critics in this particular case hypocrites just because, in your eyes, they haven’t taken the time to stop all cruelty in their life. Obviously, as moral beings, we must reflect upon what cruelties we choose to do to others, and the cruelties done by others to others. These zoos are a comparatively small cruelty, yet many small cruelties in their sum are equal to a great cruelty, and if we pass over all of them in search of a great cruelty to address, so much good that could be done will be lost.

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    When saying “nature is cruel”, I am not speaking about ancient Indian philosophies and their ideas about human life. I’m talking about nature. It is, in its root and base form, cruel. No metaphysicals or hypotheticals about it.

    Where we try to draw the distinction is, as you said, necessity. The lion needs to kill the lamb. We need to kill the mosquito.

    There’s just some incredibly blurry lines in this logic.

    I have a pet snake (not really). I need to feed that snake a mouse. The snake can’t hunt, I’m responsible for it, and so need to give it its food – alive. The mouse is going to feel quite a bit of pain in its death, but I can’t kill it first, as the snake wont eat it if I kill it humanely. So I feed it. Mouse dies, snake eats, I watch. Moralistically, is this ok?

    What if I invite my friends over to watch it feed?

    What if I film it and post it on YouTube for others to watch?

    What if I hold the mouse while the snake grabs it, invite my friends to watch and film it for YouTube?

    I’m not saying I’d do any of these things. I don’t like snakes, I like mice, and it would make me feel uncomfortable having to feed a live animal to anything.

    But my own discomfort with the situation is not grounds for me to arbitrarily pass judgment, and shift focus from what is actually the cruelty of the situation – the snake in the cage.

    Which, is what my original point was. The cruelty of this situation is not the animal being fed to the tigers, it is the tigers being forced to live this way. Something the original article that this post references only briefly touches on, but the part of the story that we should really be examining.

    The glass-houses argument of being a hypocrite in this situation isn’t really the point. It’s the focus of the article, which was to expose as much as possible of the horrible things Chinese people are willing to watch – which in-turn demonizes the Chinese and Chinese culture by using a flawed system of comparison.

    And then the argument now being made is that by watching such cruelty, the viewers themselves will be affected. But how does one gauge cruelty. If to the average Chinese person the cow/chicken/lamb is nothing more than a piece of meat (live or dead – keeping in mind that many Chinese live in situations where they are required to take that life, and not think anything of it), then is it really cruel to kill an animal in that way?

    Which again returns me to the point of the cruelty being towards the predators being teased with food, not the chicken which is being torn apart. There-in lies the behaviour that we should be fearful of propagating as a culture or society.

    And had that been the point Danny Penman was trying to make, I’d be agreeing with it. But it very clearly wasn’t.

  13. Ryan,I am a chinese.you said”Chinese zoos are horrible”. i have the same common sense with you.But you DO NOT understand Chinese people and Chinese culture.

  14. this is an outrage!! I know that some zoo’s are bad but omfg! if they don’t care about animals then they shouldn’t have zoo’s. they shouldn’t do anyting animals. instead they should leave the animals alone and let them get along w/their life while you get along w/yours instead of mistreating and torturing and misfeeding the poor animals. for shame on the chinease zoo’s

  15. You really are just an annoying Knobhead.And love to talk out of your arse.

    I could be more eloquent but I prefer the concise approach.

    It is just fundamentally WRONG ,all of it.End of

    • FUCK CHINESE PEOPLE… MISSY.. DON’T HATE. LOOK AT THE RODEO. BIG TIME ANIMAL CRUELTY. You only see what you want to see. You’re prejudice.

  16. Ryan,I am a chinese.you said”Chinese zoos are horrible”. i have the same common sense with you.But you DO NOT understand Chinese people and Chinese culture.
    HAHAHA!

    there is no CULTURE in china. when you use chinese and the word culture together you must write: chinese “culture”. “””””, O.k. english speaking modern chinaman?

    guys like you, they will send into the first line of fire, to the first frontline when the big shows starts. then you know how much your pretty government “cares” about you.

    get a bullet from a vietnamese, or taiwanese or american or south oorean soldier into your chest and then you know what chinese “culture” means. you poor nothing.

  17. AMERICAN.. STOP TALKING ABOUT CHINA. LOOK AT YOUR BACKYARD. AMERICA RODEO BIGGEST ANIMAL CRUELTY IN THE WORLD. FIX YOUR FLAWS BEFORE YOU CAN FIX OTHER.

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      While the rodeo is definitely no friend to animals, you’d have to be pretty blind to all the other creative ways we’ve thought up to be cruel to our fellow planet sharers to call it the cruelest.

      And who’s an AMERICAN? Why is the assumption always that people speaking about China are American? You know there’s an entire planet out there with an infinite number of dividing lines, right?

  18. Animal cruelty is unacceptable no matter in what country it’s taking place in. The fact that in China it is openly allowed makes me hate every Chinese person I see on the street. Just the same way I hate some snobbish stuck up bastard on the horse dressed in red somewhere in the Enlish country side enjoy watching poor fox being torn apart by his trained hounds. But at list I know that it’s illegal now and he will be punished. But the way Chinese families make a day out of visit to the zoo and watch live animals being torn apart makes me think that there is something foundumentally wrong with the culture and the mind/heart of Chinese people itself. Sorry.

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