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February 12, 2017

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Beastly incidents ignite debate over zoos

TWO weeks ago, a tiger in Ningbo Youngor Zoo in Zhejiang Province was shot dead after mauling a father of two who jumped into the beast’s enclosure to dodge an entry fee.

The incident has sparked heated discussions online, with netizens expressing regret over both deaths. Some urged the closure of zoos and the release of the animals back into the wild.

The Asian branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals published a series of posts on Weibo after the Ningbo incident. One described zoos as prisons and said “tigers don’t belong in zoos and wildlife shouldn’t be caged for public entertainment.”

The message was reposted more than 10,000 times and drew 7,900 comments.

It’s not a new debate, either in China or the world at large. Past tragedies related to zoos have drawn attention and discussion across the globe.

In 2007, a Siberian tigress named Tatiana was shot dead after fatally mauling a man at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day. In 2016, officials at Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio shot and killed a 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe to save a 3-year-old boy who had climbed into the animal’s enclosure.

Problems and challenges

In China, there are two types of zoological experiences for the public: city venues like Shanghai Zoo and safari venues like the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. City zoos fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, while the forestry department oversees safari parks that are mostly managed privately.

Or, put more simply, animals kept in city zoos are “in the system,” while those in safari venues are not. Animals under private, profit-driven management have a greater chance of being mistreated. Some are deployed to perform and engage in events not part of their animal nature.

Animal performances are prohibited in Shanghai Zoo, but the Shanghai Wild Animal Park still hosts animal circus performances involving tigers, bears, monkeys and sea lions.

In 2013, Xinhua News Agency reported that Beijing Wildlife Park was arranging peacocks on racks so that visitors could have their photos taken with them, for an additional fee of up to 60 yuan (US$8.71).

“The function of zoos needs be re-evaluated because animals are not tools for making money,” said Pei Enle, director of Shanghai Zoo. “Zoo management must be self-disciplined.”

He added that the captivity environment and welfare of zoo animals have improved greatly in China since 2000, with innovations that include natural landscaping replacing steel and concrete enclosures and better temperature controls on the animals’ environments.

Today, the biggest problem faced by Chinese zoos is the number of visitors who want to feed animals as though they were household pets.

“Good zoos require visitors to work with them in protecting the animals,” said Pei. “The animals are not there for the gratification of people. It’s important to define that relationship properly.”

Recently, five black swan eggs were stolen by visitors at the Taishan Swan Scenic Spot in Tai’an, Shandong Province. The swan couple that lost their eggs didn’t eat for four days.

Research and protection

Zoos and aquariums provide a venue where the public can view exotic species. The concept of keeping wildlife captive originated in the Middle Ages, when royalty and the wealthy kept wild animals as a symbol of their power.

Majestic animals like tigers, lions and elephants were favored by ancient rulers. In AD 43, Roman Emperor Augustus took elephants with him on an invasion of Britain.

“The development of zoos began as a novelty factor, benefitting those who couldn’t travel around the world to see animals in the wild,” said Pei. “But zoos have evolved into the role of educators about conservancy.”

London Zoo opened in 1828 with the intention of providing a venue for scientific study. Access was restricted to members of the Zoological Society of London before the zoo was opened to the public in 1847.

Modern zoos take research and protection of threatened species seriously. Those roles have become more significant as deforestation, urbanization and climate change threaten the habitats of an increasing number of animals.

In China, Pei explained, city zoos have two main functions: protection of animal species and public education of wildlife conservation. Zoos also provide a venue for research on how to increase species population, adopt disease control and prevention and reintroduce animals into the wild.

He cites the example of the South China tiger.

“It hasn’t been seen in the wild for at least 15 years,” Pei said, “but Shanghai Zoo houses more than 20 tigers and works with other zoos on various conservation projects to benefit the species.”

The Oriental stork, a large migratory bird classified as endangered, was successfully bred in captivity for the first time in 1984 at Shanghai Zoo.

Wildlife rescue is also part of the city zoo’s tasks. People often bring injured wild animals to the zoos. Exotic pets like snakes and lizards, abandoned by people because when they grow into adulthood and are no longer “cute,” have also been dropped at Shanghai zoo.

“If anyone calls us or wildlife conservation departments, we rush to the scene first,” said Pei.

“We take in invasive species released to the wild by people, like snapping turtles.”

Internationally, zoos work together to exchange species and conduct population management to avoid in-breeding.

How to help wildlife

If you encounter people selling or hurting wildlife, you can get in touch with the local wildlife conservation department or call the police at 110.

The Shanghai Zoo’s department in charge of animal rescue can be reached at 6268-7775, extension 6105.


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