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September 8, 2010

Encouraging Respect and Improving Welfare for Zoo Animals in China

Messages to Chinese zoo experts and scientists

Humane Society International

  • Dr. Rose (left) presenting at China Zoo Association Conference. HSI

by Peter Li and Naomi Rose

Zoo conditions in China are a concern for international animal advocacy groups. Animal suffering due to poor living conditions, neglect, use in entertainment and negative visitor behavior has received much attention in the media. In fact, Chinese officials and zoo managers do not deny that there is a problem. In July 2010, the State Forestry Bureau took the dramatic step of calling on all captive wildlife institutions to stop offering abusive animal performance programs.

Admittedly, this new official position is the result of years of effort, pressure and appeals by Chinese and international NGOs. The China Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG), the industry advisory body under the Ministry of Urban Construction, has also been a force, pushing for better management of zoos and other wildlife display institutions.

The annual conference of the CAZG Science Work Committee was convened in Shijiazhuang, August 26 -31, 2010, following the Forestry Bureau’s new policy announcement.

Spreading the message

HSI has worked in partnership with the CAZG since 2009. With the aim of improving zoo animal welfare, HSI sent to the 2010 Shijiazhuang conference three Western experts on the role of zoos in wildlife conservation, the challenge of holding marine mammals in captivity, and animal welfare considerations for veterinary services in captive settings.

Dr. Kathy Traylor-Holzer, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Group’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group and a captive breeding expert, addressed issues related to captive breeding, zoos’ role in wildlife protection, and what it takes to breed for species reintroduction.

To discourage the Chinese rush to build more dolphinariums, Dr. Naomi Rose, HSI’s senior scientist and a marine mammal biologist, introduced cetacean conservation issues, the history of dolphinariums, the biological and ecological challenges of holding marine mammals in captivity, and the irresolvable welfare problems inherent in the captive display of cetaceans.

Finally, Dr. Monica Bando, a senior veterinarian for Animals Asia, made a pointed presentation on veterinary services for captive settings, linking poor welfare in zoos with poor physiological and psychological health of captive species. She called on Chinese zoos to shift from a reactive to a preventive approach in veterinary service. To achieve that transition, zoos must strictly abide by the “five freedoms” principles-- freedom from malnutrition, pain, discomfort, and psychological distress, and freedom to display natural behaviors--in zoo management.

Receptive to ideas

Encouragingly, Chinese speakers at the conference echoed many of the new concepts the Western speakers addressed in their presentations.

Tian Xiuhua, a professor at the Northeast China University of Forestry, identified several common problems facing Chinese zoos, including welfare problems and serious breeding irregularities (inbreeding and cross-breeding).

In his speech on “the comprehensive protection of zoo animals,” Zhang Jinguo, deputy director of Beijing Zoo, focused on quality of veterinary service, nutrition, behavior, and housing design to drive home the message that zoo managers in their efforts to protect captive species must master knowledge of animal behavior, natural habitats and other welfare needs.

The most heartening of the Chinese presentations was Dr. Cui Yingduo’s introduction of Beijing Zoo’s conservation project to accommodate and reintroduce wild mandarin ducks. The project team did not simply observe wild mandarin ducks in the zoo; rather, after identifying the problems hindering the breeding needs of these migratory birds, the team installed artificial nesting boxes equipped with video cameras to monitor the entire cycle of the birth of the young.

Addressing the Asia Pacific Youth Summit

HSI’s China visit did not end in Shijiazhuang. On August 30 in Hong Kong, Dr. Naomi Rose gave a keynote address at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots Asia Pacific Youth Summit. This presentation was also on the subject of the welfare of captive cetaceans. The audience included 650 young people, aged 15 to 22, mostly from mainland China and Hong Kong but also from South America, Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe. Attendees heard motivational talks on conservation, environmental protection, animal welfare, and the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle.

Dr. Goodall herself gave an inspirational address to the Summit participants, asking for their commitment to conservation efforts locally and worldwide. The students had excellent questions for all the speakers and seemed genuinely energized by the presentations. Many of them appeared ready to make it their life’s work to address such universal issues as global warming and animal cruelty.

Keeping channels of communication open

HSI will continue to remain engaged on marine mammal conservation and captive animal welfare issues in Hong Kong, working with organizations such as Roots & Shoots and the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS).

Our friends at HKDCS are working to protect the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis), or Chinese pink dolphin, from continued habitat degradation. They took Dr. Rose dolphin watching while in Hong Kong and she had the great privilege of observing 15-20 of these wonderful animals, feeding amid the alarmingly high vessel traffic and increasingly polluted waters off Lantau Island. Their resilience in the face of these environmental threats was encouraging, but we hope the Hong Kong government scales back its plans to further develop the waters in which these dolphins live.

Chinese receptiveness to progressive ideas of animal welfare is a positive sign. Although we cannot anticipate overnight improvement for zoo animals in China, we believe our continued collaboration with the CAZG is in the best interest of Chinese zoo animals, setting aside the controversy over zoos and captive wildlife. Partnership and engagement keep the channels of communication open and encourage continued improvement. In the words of a former U.S. president, the darkest days in China’s history were those when the country was closed to the outside world. HSI is committed to keeping China’s door open to humane ideas and humane developments for animals.

Dr. Naomi Rose is senior scientist for HSI. Dr. Peter Li is HSI's China Specialist.