Beijing Zoo: Atrocities Reflecting a Global Issue

Chains, starvation and concrete enclosures; it’s all happening at the zoo, no matter how much we don’t want to believe it’s true. tells of the dark side to animal captivity

A starving bear begging for food at Beijing Zoo

A starving bear begging for food at Beijing Zoo

Our panoptic fascination with wild animals is nothing new, with records proving that collections of exotic creatures have entertained people from around 3500 B.C. It was not until 1752, however, that in Vienna the first ‘modern zoo’ was established, with education, conservation, and entertainment at its forefront.

Yet, these three idealised objectives are usually accompanied by enormous flaws and are in themselves limited in success. Journalist Jennifer Horton naively wrote the following last year in her article for Animal Planet: ‘Zoos have improved significantly […] Gone are the old steel-bar enclosures and cold cement cages. Most zoos these days use natural-looking barriers like moats or ditches to separate animals from people, and have mini-habitats that resemble the animals’ natural environment.’ The negatives of zoos limited to highlighting issues in American ones, and the signs of stress animals can display in captivity.

I wish such jaded visions on the zoological industry were true. Horton refers to the zoos with the most money, space and care for their animals—the mistreatment of animals due to rare mistakes. Horton did not even touch on the general cruelty of confinement, as seen in Central Park Zoo, New York, where over 130 different species are compacted into a 6.5 acre facility.

The zoos in the People’s Republic of China show an even crueller side to the industry, where animals suffer appalling mistreatment, malnourishment, and live in squalid conditions. These practices in particular bring zoos into question for, if they do not deliver what they say they supply and cause animals to live atrocious lives, then perhaps ‘concrete prison’ is a more apt name for some.

It was in 2010 that eleven Siberian tigers were starved to death in Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo. The director tried to cover up the disaster, but the evidence of starvation was explicit. Liu Xiaoqiang of the Shenyang Wild Animal Protection Station reported how the tigers had been kept in cold, cramped metal cages, and fed on nothing but chicken bones.

A starving Lion at Beijing Zoo

A starving Lion at Beijing Zoo

A fundamental reason for such cruelty is the approach China has to wild animals in captivity, with the animals seen fundamentally as economic objects. China’s 700 zoos attract 150 million visitors a year. But despite the business, the money to upkeep the animal’s conditions is scarce. Wang, the woman in charge of corporate planning in the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo, comments on how ‘the food bill for the tigers ran to about $1,320 (9,000 yuan) a day — nearly half the food allowance the zoo gets from the local government to care for all the animals’. It is no wonder then, that the Siberian tigers suffered severe malnourishment.

Evidently the zoos are unable to provide the minimum care these animals require. In 2011 I went to China and visited the Beijing Zoo. I was shuffled through during a conference with the most horrific enclosures hidden from my sight. It was when talking to fellow student, James Ellis, that I received a first-hand account of the appalling conditions.

For James ‘the elephants chained up were the worst. They kept trying to touch each other but couldn’t. And they had marks on them [the chains around their feet digging into their skin] from pulling so hard’. Elephants are used to walking around 50 miles a day, but instead in the Beijing zoo they are immobile. Their emotional family instinct is torn apart and natural life cycle completely erased.

Lack of space, food, and natural environment is evident all around the Beijing Zoo, with animals like the bear trapped inside a concrete cell, bored and starving as they often climb the walls to beg the visitors for food. While the animals with less fur, like the lions, exhibiting the effects of their mistreatment and malnourishment with protruding bones on their starved frames.

Visitors also perpetuate the cruelty. In Hangzhou Zoo it has been reported that numerous visitors have been caught throwing things at the animals. Visitors have been known to throw whatever they could get their hands on like rubbish and rocks.

When it comes to the protection of animals the laws in China are few and far between. There is no legal standard and so each facility applies their own. The People’s Republic of China Law on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a draft proposal which was released on the 18th of September 2009. It has yet to be adopted by the legislature.
The Law on Protection of Wild Animals is the only existing animal law in the country which prohibits trafficking and abuse. However, it fails to protect animals already in captivity.

Elephants are chained up and kept in concrete enclosures.

Elephants are chained up and kept in concrete enclosures.

Though live animal performances have been banned in China since the start of 2011, this does not stop them from occurring. PETA in late 2013 reported that ‘China is particularly awful, in terms of feeding live animals to other animals in zoos and forcing animals in captivity to perform painful tricks such as riding bicycles, walking on stilts and standing on their heads as people gawp and giggle’. They also reported, and China is not alone in this, that ‘we have seen animals in zoos kept in windowless rooms behind the scenes, artificially inseminated and swapped away from their lifelong mates, siblings and friends.’

These are the horrors on the surface of a much bigger issue. China’s cruelties are explicit compared to other countries; however, zoo practices all over the world are up for questioning. Zoos and wildlife parks in China are rarely there for educational or conservational purposes, far from it and are often used to provide cruel entertainment, sometimes side-lining a role in the trade of rare animal body parts. Overall the industry pretends to be something it is not. The economy fuels the mistreatment as they do not have the money to support the upkeep of their animals, with the animals becoming a fuel for the economy and conservational initiatives lacking centre stage. The atrocities witnessed by many tourists are the tip of a very deep and disturbing iceberg.


  1. Shameful reporting. You are tarnishing all zoos with the same brush as bad zoos. I completely agree some zoos are horrendous and need to be closed or incredibly improved, but there are so many great zoos out there doing great work. Here are just a few examples –
    – Przwalskis Horse extinct in the wild. Zoos had a genetically healthy population of these animals and released them back into the wild. Now these horses are back in the wild, saved due to zoo breeding programs
    – Corroboree Frog , critically endangered due to introduced disease called chytrid fungus. Zoos have bred up and released hundreds of these animals, increasing their numbers and helping to stabilize the population
    – Tasmanian devils on the brink of extinction, zoos have hundreds throughout the world as a genetic safety net against extinction, and can release them back into the wild when a cure is found for the facial disease currently crippling their wild counterparts
    – thousands of animals rescued, rehabbed and released each year by zoos wildlife hospitals
    – animals from SE Asia restaurants rescued and given sanctuary at zoos
    – elephants due to be culled due to overpopulation in some national parks in Africa instead given a second chance at zoos

    I could go on! Good zoos do incredible work and contribute millions of dollars of funding to conservation projects worldwide every year. The staff work tirelessly for their animal charges and work hard to educate the public about the plight of so many animals and to inspire behaviour change.

    It is not fair to generalize all zoos as bad and attack zoos that do great work.
    I totally agree that places like Beijing Zoo need to be shut down or immensely improved and the conditions some of their animals are in is heartbreaking.

    But there are so many good zoos out there that deserve our support.
    The reality is at the moment we need zoos. We need GOOD zoos. Maybe in an ideal world we wouldn’t need them but it’s not an ideal world and animals in the wild are in peril and we need to focus on that, rather than attack places that are trying to help.


    • 16 Feb ’14 at 1:12 pm

      Emily Collins

      I agree with you in that the majority of Zoos do carry out some amazing work. However, if you read it carefully, you’ll realize that the article is not arguing against this. Instead, it aims to highlight the cases where animal welfare and conservation projects aren’t always the number one priority in Zoos.

      Yes, even Beijing Zoo may inspire a conservationist or two, and even aid the survival of some endangered species, but it’s still heartbreaking to see animals retained in such poor conditions. The issue here is not whether zoos are good or bad, but a question of whether animals should be allowed to be mistreated to such extents in what is supposed to be a nurturing environment.

      If you feel the need to shout about the good work that zoos do then perhaps you’d like to write an article about it. Please contact me at [email protected] if you’re interested.