I’m not a big fan of zoos, seeing animals caged up or living in concrete enclosures is depressing. I’m ok with birds and farm animals and can watch a colony of bees or ants busying away for hours, but large animals, especially those from exotic parts of the world, I feel sorry for. I wasn’t looking forward to visiting Beijing Zoo, but as it is the oldest zoo in China and a major tourist attraction, I need to see it myself rather than prejudge it.
Driving down the busy multilane highway outside you could easily miss the park and its old entrance gate. Inside though, it’s a surprisingly large and spacious park. It sprawls across two sides of a narrow river and on an early, mild spring day off season, it isn’t very busy. The main visitors emerging from the nearby subway are families of excited children and young courting couples. With a basic entrance fee of just 10RMB (extra for the pandas and the marine park) it’s an easy, cheap day out.
The area is divided into geographical zones and we head straight for the stars of the African region. On the way we pass some pairs of fabulously coloured birds. They live behind glass rather than just a cage which I assume is to control the temperature during Beijing’s freeing winter. The auto focus lens of my camera picks out the reflected light and sticky fingerprints on the windows and makes photographing difficult. And when the sun is in the wrong direction you must press your face to the glass, shielding the light with your hands, to see inside.
We arrive at the tiger enclosure and take our place at the edge of the concrete pit where a single Siberian tiger, surprisingly slight, paces continuously. It moves steadily in a triangular route; along the cement and boulder ditch below us then up to the doorway of its interior space then back to the ditch. Everyone waits to get their best shots each time it passes on its unvarying circuit. Next door was a second, identical enclosure and a sign for another Siberian tiger hangs from its fence. I wonder if they know they aren’t alone. If they smell or hear each other on the opposite sides of the faux rock wall. Is the presence of another inmate a comfort or a threat? But the other pits are empty, their prisoners either lazing inside or, I mercifully hope, gone on to a better place.
At the end of the empty animal pits towers a large statue of a black panther, appropriately enclosed in a circle of razor wire. An art school student couldn’t have articulated the zoo better. But whereas the statuesque animal is muscular and powerful, raging and defiant in its enslavement above us, the big cat we’d looked down on was subdued and lost, broken by its alien existence.
Most of the other animal enclosures are similar. We pass a series of pens containing antelope varieties, routinely labelled with their common names; the Steenbok, the Springbok, the Blesbok, their species listed on signs with its origin and endangered status. Then come the giraffes. at least not kept in solitary, they stalk leggily back and forth along the fences of their dry paddocks, looking anxious and irrationally fearful.
Over the river we find the hippopotamus and rhinoceros’ house. The animals are indoors away from the Beijing cold. The interior is dim but the exhibits are well which gives an impression of looking into an aquarium. The Rhino cell is as bare as a dungeon and the glass is stained with dried liquid.
Next door, for once, the hippopotamus walls have been teasingly painted with a background of lush vegetation, water and companions. They are the most attractive exhibits of the day and give an impression of a more natural environment, at least to our cameras.
After the efforts made for the hippos, the caged Elephant’s conditions are a horror show. Each of the half dozen elephants is kept solitary in a series of cages made of thick grey bars. The bleakness is broken only by a handful of straw strewn on the floor. In the dim light they all stand facing their side wall with their head swaying side to side. A Chinese friend exclaimed ‘look at him dancing, he must be really enjoying his life.’
When we exit the elephant house the park is starting to close and some of the indoor exhibits are shut. I’ve had enough, but we pass the arctic world on the way back to the gate. It’s a concrete cell that had once been painted white to look like ice. Now, in a parody of the global warming that the frozen land it reproduces suffers; patches have dissolved to reveal the ground below. A polar bear paces rhythmically between the two side walls and as he reaches each end he stops, looks up at the roof and shake his head before turning back the way he has just walked. We watched him repeat his ritual a dozen times before we walk away.
I came not liking zoos because of the captivity of animals. I assume they care about their inability to run or roam for miles, to hunt or graze and live the lives that a million years of evolution had made them fit for. I expected Beijing zoo to restrict the animal’s natural lives of course. I also expected it to be dirty and the creatures in poor condition. In the latter respects I was wrong; all the cages and enclosures were clean and the animals looked in good physical health. But mentally many are deranged, made mad by the unimaginable boredom of their lives. For the African animals, big cats and bears this isn’t a zoo, it’s a mental asylum.
In ‘The case for zoos – a scientist’s perspective’, Andrew Cunningham argues that they are educational, ‘enabling visitors to see animals up close has a lasting effect on how they view the natural world’. That they ‘benefit endangered animals in the wild through disease research and breading programs. Maybe this is true at the London zoo he works and for the frogs and birds he cites as examples. But not here, not with these large animals, isolated, alone, and insane.
This zoo reduces fascinating creatures to be no more interesting than common farm animals or pets. The tiger, the giraffe and the elephant made as exciting as fish, a stick insect, or a cow. The rows of antelopes and birds turned into a catalogue or book of photographs. If footfalls measure the most popular attraction, then the busiest part was the adventure playground. What lasting view of the natural world do children take away when the slides and swings are more exciting than living animals?