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January 25, 2013

HSI in China for Zoo Animals

Humane Society International

  • HSI and AAF sent a letter (English / Chinese) [PDF] expressing concern over the import of elephants into China. Johan Swanepoel/istock

by Peter J. Li and Mark Jones

The welfare of Chinese zoo animals has long been of concern to both the Chinese and international communities, and HSI has received many inquiries from people worried about this issue.

For three years now, we have been working with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens to send animal care, animal welfare and enclosure design experts to events in China with the goal of improving zoo management and humane animal husbandry there. In 2012, HSI assisted CAZG with two workshops.

The 2012 Shanghai Zoo Directors’ Workshop

Together with Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), HSI helped to bring six Western experts to the third annual Shanghai Zoo Directors’ Workshop. They covered topics ranging from the role of zoos in conservation and education, to enrichment and population management, as well as the evolution of the mission of zoos away from merely providing entertainment. By introducing modern concepts adopted by many European and North American zoos, the speakers encouraged the Chinese audience to move their institutions in the right direction.

Mark Jones, executive director of HSI/UK, made a thought-provoking speech inviting the zoo directors and managers to rethink the functions of zoos, encouraging them to make zoo animal welfare a higher priority and to strive for a system for evaluating welfare standards in Chinese zoos.

HSI at the Captive Animal Behavior Workshop in Harbin

HSI also participated in the second “Captive Animal Behavior Workshop” held in Harbin in northeast China and co-sponsored by Northeast China University of Forestry and CAZG, with support from HSI and AAF. Attendees were young animal care providers, junior managers, vets, and researchers. The aim was to introduce to the students the latest scientific studies on the behavioral needs of both wildlife and captive animals and on the methods available for avoiding and correcting behavioral problems.

Dr. Teresa Telecky, director of HSI’s wildlife department, focused her speech on the need to prevent behavioral problems common among zoo animals. Never before had any speaker touched on CITES regulations concerning transport and holding conditions in countries importing wild animals for public display purposes. Dr. Telecky emphasized that the prevention of behavioral problems should be a key part of the decision-making process when animals are selected for a zoo collection. She argued that many species, such as elephants, dolphins and whales, are not suitable for captive display and importing these animals to zoos anywhere in the world is certain to result in severely abnormal behavior.

China is experiencing an explosive zoo building/renovation program. Dr. Telecky alerted the audience to the need to look at the conditions under which animals were trained or tamed. An abused animal added to a zoo collection will likely never recover its normal behavior. Dr. Telecky also emphasized the need for careful consideration of the environmental suitability of zoos for certain types of animals: for example, in northern China, where temperatures can fall below freezing for up to three months, it may not be possible to safely keep tropical or sub-tropical species.

HSI-China Zoo Association partnership

Cooperation between HSI and the CAZG has developed productively over the past three years. We have noted the continuing efforts by CAZG to encourage its member zoos to upgrade their management and animal care expertise. CAZG officials are among the most open and forward-thinking of Chinese officials. In November 2011, CAZG sent a delegation of five officials to visit zoos in Britain in a trip that was jointly organized by HSI and AAF.

CAZG has worked hard to draft industry-wide standards to guide animal care. Member zoos are paying increasing attention to conservation and public education. Shanghai Zoo has included in its education program messages against animal cruelty (e.g. bear farming) and against wildlife exploitation. Shanghai Zoo has also undertaken efforts to enrich the housing for the animals in its care, and although there is room for further improvement, the results have been encouraging. HSI staff were pleasantly surprised that disrespectful visitor behaviors, so common in most Chinese zoos, were not seen at the Shanghai Zoo during a visit in 2012, suggesting that the zoo’s efforts to inform and educate the public are having a positive impact.

Providing on-site help

HSI staff always use visits to China to offer on-site help to institutions and groups in need. During a 2010 CAZG event, we coordinated a side trip for a Western vet, a speaker at the event, to provide veterinary advice at a local rescue center. Following the 2011 behavior workshop, HSI’s expert spent two further days at Beijing Zoo to provide welfare enhancement advice to the management in order to improve conditions for a captive elephant. In Harbin this past year, HSI organized a tour of a local aquarium and provided on-site consultation on health issues involving the belugas, walrus, and seals at the facility.

HSI attaches great importance to our collaboration with CAZG. While we do not believe that zoos can provide an answer to conservation and public education needs, while zoos exist we will continue to work towards improving conditions for zoo animals. It is also our hope that the partnership with CAZG will encourage more proactive efforts by the Chinese themselves. We were greatly encouraged by the landmark policy against zoo animal performance by China’s Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, which was initiated by the CAZG.

Peter J. Li, Ph.D. is HSI China Policy Specialist

Mark Jones, Executive Director, HSI/UK

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