In China, exploiting wild animals


Parks: As the country moves to a more market- driven economy, zoo denizens are faring even worse than usual to increase revenue.

August 12, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHENZHEN, China -- At the Shenzhen Safari Park, the competition for worst animal exhibit is fierce.

There is the sluggish tiger, probably sedated, which lies chained to a wooden table. Employees strike him with metal rods until he submits to being photographed with visitors.

And there is the fetid, green pool where patrons pay about $2 to toss baby ducks into the jaws of Malaysian crocodiles.

The boxing bear at least can fight back.

Standing before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds, a man wearing boxing gloves lands several jabs to the bear's nose until the animal tosses him to the mat. The bear, overwhelmed by the sweltering southern China heat, collapses on the canvas. The crowd erupts in cheers.

"The bear should not be hit," says Yang Tongyuan, an 8-year-old spectator. "They are protected animals."

Chinese traditionally have viewed wild animals as a resource to be exploited rather than preserved. The drive toward a more market-oriented economy has only encouraged that line of thinking.

In the 1990s, entrepreneurs have tried to cash in on the curiosity of an emerging middle class by opening animal parks, but the animals often live under cruel, unsanitary and humiliating conditions.

These include the Siberian Tiger Park, in the northeastern city of Harbin, where customers can pay $180 to watch big cats tear a live calf apart and hunting ranges where patrons use bows and arrows to stalk tethered rabbits.

Dubbed an "animal Auschwitz" in the local press, the Shenzhen Safari Park near Hong Kong in southern China is among the most egregious. Until too many foreign visitors complained, the park featured such crowd pleasers as horse fighting.

"Perhaps they think the more bizarre and the more cruel, the more money they will make," says Jill Robinson, an animal rights activist in Hong Kong.

China has no cruelty laws, so wild animals must sometimes rely on the kindness of cops. In 1996, authorities raided a Shenzhen disco and removed a tiger from a revolving cage where the staff prodded it to "dance" for customers. The charge: keeping wild life without a license.

As bleak as life appears for many wild animals in China, the lot of domestic ones has improved in some ways. It is one of the paradoxes surrounding the nation's emerging market economy: The same rising incomes that have driven the creation of freak-show, animal parks also have encouraged a new class of urban pet owner who would rather dote on Fido than eat him.

Despite an urban ban under Mao Tse-tung, dogs have made a quiet comeback because of increasing disposable income and changing social patterns. Urban parents, limited by law to having just one child, purchase dogs to keep their kids company. Elderly people whose children have moved into new high-rises buy pets for companionship.

Ao Jin, 36, a driver for a foreign joint-venture company, grew up owning a German shepherd but had to give it away when the government banned dogs.

Three months ago, under a looser law, he bought a cocker spaniel mix for his 9-year-old daughter. Ao spent about $300 -- a huge sum in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is about $750.

Taking care of their dog, whose name is Louie, has not been easy. The municipal government requires a $600 licensing fee for the first year of ownership. Like most Beijingers, Ao can't afford it. His wife often walks the dog before dawn to avoid detection.

"We are afraid he will be confiscated once he is caught by the `KGB with little feet,' " says Ao, referring to the elderly women who run Mao-era neighborhood committees which were established as local spy networks.

While the city permits small dogs like Louie, it has banned those with shoulders higher than 13 1/2 inches. If caught, the animals are beaten to death.

After the ban took effect in 1995, most foreigners flew their dogs home. Kathy Chen, then a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, did not.

To get around the ban, she registered her Great Dane, Agatha, under the name of an embassy official in a bid of sorts for diplomatic immunity. Police who watched over Chen's apartment compound were not fooled but looked the other way. Street cops were less forgiving.

When Chen was shopping one day, Agatha -- sans leash -- walked through an open-air market and up to a police station. A cop handcuffed her collar to a gate and then went back inside to call higher authorities for advice.

Recognizing that Agatha's life might come to a swift end, Chen slipped the collar off and the two bolted down the street toward the Irish Embassy, where the 107-pound Great Dane sought asylum. After hiding behind locked doors for 20 minutes, reporter and dog caught a ride home with an embassy official.

Frightened at the time, Chen, who now works in Washington, laughs about the scene today.

"They thought it was so amusing," says Chen, referring to Irish Embassy officials. "It got me an invitation to the ambassador's for dinner."

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