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January 25, 2010

HSI President Visits China

Humane Society International

  • Dr. Rowan visiting a panda. © HSI

  • Ready for the vet's examination. © HSI

  • Dr. Rowan visits a cat shelter. © HSI

  • TNR for stray cats is the best solution. © HSI

  • Dr. Rowan meets with the deputy mayor of Beijing. © HSI

by Peter. J. Li

On his way to Singapore for a symposium by Asia for Animals, Dr. Andrew Rowan, President and CEO of HSI, paid a three-day (January 11-13, 2010) visit to Beijing, China. This visit took place at a time when much of North China was weathering the worst winter storm in three decades; yet, the brutal winds from the Gobi Desert were no deterrence. Dr. Rowan and I arrived in Beijing to meet old friends and forge new ties.

Across China, wealth has swelled by more than 30 times in the last three decades; however, these material gains have yet to much benefit nonhuman animals. On the contrary, exploitation of animals has too often been part of such accomplishment. Worse still, animals are often convenient targets of victimization in the name of public safety. We constantly hear from our supporters about the suffering of animals in China. It is a new frontier of HSI's campaign to improve the lot of animals globally. We believe that working through the authorities and with local groups is key to our success there.

Day one: park and hospital visits

Our first day took us to Beijing's famous Temple of Heaven Park and Xiaotangshan Hospital. Public parks and hospitals in China are places stray animals—particularly cats—tend to congregate. Too often, such animals are openly slaughtered in the most brutal ways, such as by bludgeoning and poisoning.

Fortunately, Temple of Heaven Park and Xiaotangshan Hospital have partnered with Beijing's Capital Animal Welfare Association (CAWA) to conduct TNR (trap, neuter and release) programs. Temple of Heaven Park has not only welcomed CAWA volunteers, but also provided funding for sterilizing more than 90 stray cats inside the park. And thanks to the persistence of CAWA, particularly its director Madame Qin Xiaona, Xiaotangshan Hospital—a health facility for senior government officials—has been made a TNR pilot project. Hospital staffs have been the care-providers to the sterilized cats in five locations inside the hospital compound.

"TNR is the only effective and humane solution to the stray cat problem in the city," Madame Qin commented in the meetings with the Park and Hospital officials. "Killing stray cats in public places would only encourage cruel behavior, particularly among the youth," she added. Also importantly, releasing the sterilized cats back to their territories helps reduce the rodent population, thus eliminating the need for the city to deploy rat poison, a source of serious pollution.

Overall, encouraging a positive role by the government in urban animal management has been an uphill struggle for Chinese animal advocacy groups. In Beijing, these efforts have paid off. CAWA's successful projects at the Temple of Heaven Park and Xiaotangshan Hospital are results of meticulous and patient lobbying efforts with the relevant government offices. "The Chinese government listens when one approaches it in an unthreatening way," explained Madame Qin. Working through the government for incremental gains, in the eyes of Madame Qin, is the most cost-effective approach.

Day two: Beijing Agricultural Bureau

Day two of our visit was devoted to a showcasing by Beijing Agriculture Bureau of its work in stray animal control. According to deputy chief Mr. Ma Rong Cai, the Agriculture Bureau attaches importance to collaborating on urban animal control with Beijing groups, including CAWA. Since 2007, the Bureau has received special funding for TNR programs throughout the city—local government support unprecedented in China. The TNR budget for 2010, 990,000 yuan RMB in total, was recently approved. A mechanism has been set up whereby local groups can apply for special coupons for sterilizing stray cats at more than 100 designated vet clinics.

Since 2007, more than 15,000 cats have been sterilized each year. So far, Beijing is the only city where the local government has implemented a special fund for stray cat sterilization. This proactive measure has encouraged the local animal protection community. "Government-NGO collaboration in the last few years has helped bring the two sides closer," said Madame Qin. "We have shown officials that we want to be a help, not a hindrance to the government's urban animal management."

Beijing's Agriculture Bureau maintains eight stray cat shelters. Dr. Rowan and I were pleased to be invited to visit one such facility. The shelter we visited is maintained in decent conditions. We may have been shown the best and most presentable one; yet, its role as a model cannot be denied. At this shelter, strict quarantine procedures are implemented, sterilization is conducted, veterinary care is provided, and rehoming efforts are also made, with limited success. The shelter was an eye-opener. We congratulate officials of Beijing Agriculture Bureau for their conscientious efforts to improve stray animal welfare.

The highlight of the day, and perhaps the visit itself, was the meeting between Mr. Xia Zhanyi, deputy mayor of Beijing, and Dr. Rowan. As the city's ranking official in charge, Mr. Xia welcomed the HSI delegation and expressed interest in forging a collaborative relationship with Humane Society International. Dr. Rowan introduced HSI and its work in China in the last 10 years to the deputy mayor and his entourage, including chiefs from the city's agriculture, public security and civil affairs bureaus. Recognizing the value of Beijing's experience, Dr. Rowan extended an invitation to Beijing officials in charge of urban animal management to attend an exchange event to be hosted by HSI. The mayor accepted the invitation with pleasure.

The HSI team's last day in Beijing was spent with officials from the China Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) and Beijing Zoo. With 246 member zoos, CAZG is an advisory institution under the Ministry of Construction. It has played an active role in introducing to member zoos the latest ideas on captive wildlife care and zoo management. In recent years, the Association has stepped up efforts to facilitate welfare-focused improvements in zoo management. Admitting that conditions of Chinese zoos are not even across the country, CATG hopes that the Association's annual conference, workshops, training sessions and international exchanges will help enhance the awareness of the administrators of Chinese zoological gardens.

Dr. Rowan frankly told the CATG officials that HSI does not see zoos as the right place for wild animals; yet, he added that HSI recognizes the need to improve the quality of life of captive wildlife. What CATG has been doing is in any case commendable. Both sides expressed interest in forging a working relationship that would lead to the dissemination of the latest welfare practices in China.

Beijing Zoo is China's oldest and biggest urban zoological garden. It occupies a vast area of 150 hectares of land, fragmented by artificial lakes and waterways. More than 5,000 wildlife species are displayed here. It attracts more than 5 million visitors a year. The zoo is also an important player in so-called "panda diplomacy." As China's flagship zoo, it has made efforts to improve conditions for its animals. Since 2000, it has implemented the nation's first zoo enrichment program.

A behavioral program has also been conducted to condition zoo animals for the occasions when veterinarians need to perform health checkups on them. The results of this program were quite impressive; for example, we witnessed a panda taking a position in the way he was instructed to, a position that would allow easy access by veterinarians and others with a need to get close to the animal.

Hopeful signs

In regard to making positive changes for animals, China is a hard nut to crack. Government-NGO collaboration in Beijing has shown us that an authoritarian government is no insurmountable obstacle. HSI is in China not because work there is easy. Our recent visit confirmed both the enormity of the challenge and promising signs of progress.

Unpopular and indiscriminate dog culls are still a cheap but ineffective means of animal control in many urban areas across the country. Fortunately, Beijing has moved away from this draconian approach. Animal protection groups in most parts of China, in the eyes of some officials, are comprised of individuals with suspect motives. The partnership between Beijing municipal government offices and local groups such as CAWA is a testimony that the two can work together for a common objective. We should encourage Beijing officials and NGOs to introduce their model to the rest of the country.

Chinese zoological gardens have long been criticized for animal cruelty. While this international criticism is well-grounded, the steps taken by Beijing Zoo and the efforts made by CATG, slowly but firmly, are arguably a positive trend to be encouraged. Despite room for improvement, the Beijing Zoo has a lot to offer to the zoo community in the rest of the country.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank Madame Qin Xiaona, director of Beijing's Capital Animal Welfare Association, for her assistance in setting up our meetings in Beijing. Without her help, this trip would not have been so successful. We would also thank Madame Li Cuihua, deputy secretary general of the China Association of Zoological Gardens. Her efforts led to a successful meeting with the Association leadership and a visit to the Beijing Zoo. Our thanks also go to Irene Zhang for efforts in setting up meetings with officials from the Ministry of Commerce and Agriculture.

Dr. Peter J. Li is China Policy Specialist for HSI.