Chinese Zoos – Animal Cruelty or Cultural Ambiguity?

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.