• Share to Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Email
    • Print

July 8, 2011

Helping Animals in Chinese Zoos: HSI’s Continuing Efforts

Humane Society International

  • Farinato and Li present. Zhang EQ

  • Touring the new zoo. Zhang EQ

by Peter Li

The treatment of animals in China’s zoos has received a tremendous amount of negative publicity in recent years, and rightly so. Not long ago, 11 tigers starved to death in a private safari park in northeast China’s Shenyang city. The controversial practice of feeding live animals such as cows to predators like tigers continues in some private zoos. In April, Chinese activists exposed a shocking case in which injured elephants in a private zoo in southwest China’s Yunnan province were apparently denied proper veterinary care; images of an old, abused and sick elephant galvanized the Chinese public, who demanded that action be taken.

In addition to increasing public awareness in China about the welfare of animals in zoos, progressive officials within the Chinese government banned animal performances in Chinese zoos in October 2010, and called for improving animal welfare. Confronting cruelty to animals by encouraging progressive forces inside China is the guiding principle of HSI’s engagement in the country.

Constructive engagement

As part of a collaborative exchange program with the official China Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG), HSI has been providing expert speakers for an annual zoo directors’ workshop. HSI dispatched three experts to the first event, held in 2010, to address animal welfare in zoos and other captive wildlife institutions. Some 56 zoo directors from across China attended the three-day conference. HSI once again provided three American experts to the second zoo directors' workshop, held June 20-23, 2011 in Beijing. This year, 87 Chinese zoo directors were present.

Introducing new ideas and best practices

The first speaker was Richard Farinato, an HSI expert on zoo enclosure design and enrichment programs. In his presentations, he emphasized the importance of using exhibit design as an enrichment tool. An enriched enclosure allowing animals to display natural behaviors can better fulfill the educational objectives of Chinese zoos. Responsible zoological gardens must make efforts to provide the necessary welfare conditions to the animals they display. Farinato advised Chinese zoo directors that investment in face-lifting existing facilities should not primarily be focused on beautifying the setting for visitors, who only spend a few hours at the zoo, but rather than on improving the environment inside the enclosures where the animals spend their entire lives.

Give to help stop wildlife abuse.

Bob Ramin, executive director of Washington’s National Aquarium, presented information on strategies for fundraising for zoos and aquariums. He explained that Chinese zoos do not need to exploit animals for profit such as by forcing them to engage in humiliating and risky performances; there are many other reputable and time-tested alternative tactics. These include membership plans, cultivation of sponsorship and loyalty, and planned giving, etc. The highlight of Mr. Ramin’s speech was his mention of the swelling number of billionaires in China. “I am optimistic about individual giving to public facilities in China with the growing financial clout of the Chinese entrepreneurs,” he said.

Steve Marshalls, director of the El Paso Zoo in Texas, introduced the Chinese zoo directors to the accreditation and membership policy of American Zoo Association (AZA), suggesting that it was high time that CAZG produce its own zoo industry standards. By conforming to their own standards, Mr. Marshalls suggested, Chinese zoos could become leaders in captive wildlife care and reduce public criticism. CAZG currently does not have a strict membership policy, nor does it have standards or an accreditation mechanism to encourage compliance. As CAZG has just started the process of drafting standards for captive animal care, Mr. Marshalls’ speech was very timely.

The presentations of the three speakers were well-received. Each speech was followed by active exchanges between the speakers and the attendees.

On-site consultation

As part of our exchanges with the Chinese zoo directors, HSI was invited to offer on-site consultation to the managers of a brand new zoo in a southeastern Chinese city. The HSI team made a four-day visit to the zoo, built with a government investment of 1 billion Yuan (USD $160 million). The enormous facility, with its attractive natural and man-made landscapes, was a commendable architectural accomplishment. With more than 200 species from around the world and some 4,000 individual animals, the new zoo is notably better than the one that it replaced. Nonetheless, the HSI team identified several areas needing immediate attention.

Investment for the building of the zoo went overwhelmingly into the construction of a pleasing environment for visitors. In other words, while the visitor facilities are attractive, quite a few enclosures for the animals are barren and have great room for improvement. The HSI team gave a presentation to some 60 animal care personnel and technicians from the zoo. We held round-table discussions with the management team on ways to enrich the enclosures. A formal document containing detailed recommendations is being drafted and will be sent to CAZG and the administrators of the zoo.

Cautious optimism

Through this visit, HSI team members learned about the confrontations between members of the zoo industry who resisted the October government ban on animal performance and officials who stood firm for enforcing the ban. “Zoos cannot be run as for-profit business organizations,” a senior government official told HSI. “We will work hard to ensure that Chinese zoos improve their management and level of animal care,” he continued. HSI’s efforts to encourage positive change in Chinese zoo management were well received by CAZG.

Chinese zoos have a lot to improve; yet, China is not monolithic. Progressive voices are defining the course of China’s future, including the future of Chinese zoological gardens. HSI will continue to work to make those voices heard.

Help animals by supporting our efforts to stop wildlife abuse.

Dr. Peter Li is China Specialist for HSI.

  • Sign Up

    Sign up to receive information and action alerts from HSI

  • Take Action