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Chinese Zoo Culture: Animal Abuse Or A Lack Of Cultural Relativism?

While it’s generally bad form to go into another country and start flinging around the morality of your own culture, there was something at the Nanshun Crocodile Park that tweaked even my worn out sense of cultural relativism.

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I’ve seen the garbage eating monkeys at the Nanjing zoo. I’ve watched as visitors passed cigarettes through the bars to a baboon at a zoo in Taizhou and then laughed when he burned his fingers. I’ve seen the spinning animal show — where a scuba diver spins a giant sea turtle, a shark, and a sting ray around and around in circles to the delight of the crowd — at the Hangzhou aquarium. I’ve watched many animal street shows in China, including one that went way wrong and ended with three monkeys battling three small dogs in a melee of claws, teeth, tails, and tangled leashes. And, too many times to count, I’ve watched people in China pelt caged animals with trash, food, snowballs, and just about anything else they can find to throw. In point, I know how Chinese culture tends to treat animals — especially those that are meant for entertainment — and I understand that I need to exercise the proper distance and moral flexibility decreed by cultural relativism when in such environments.

Going to a Chinese zoo and moaning about animal abuse is like using the Shanghai subway during rush hour and complaining about crowds, going to a bar and whining about the drunks, voting and bitching about how politicians lie. This is a country where up until very recently, just about anything that moved and wasn’t branded homo sapien was pan-culturally regarded as food. The concept regarding proper animal treatment here is starkly different than it is in the West — calling it archaic, uncivilized, inhumane, whatever, is not going to gain much traction — but this concept is slowly starting to change, and places like the grade A Beijing zoo or people rescuing 1000 cats from a truck accident rather than eating them is testament to this fact.

This is probably why the Xiamen Nansun Crocodile park hit me as a stark sucker punch. I was expecting normal bad, not medieval.

Entire raw chickens were tied to the ends of ropes which were attached to the ends of bamboo poles like a fishing rod. For 20 RMB you could go crocodile fishing.

A bridge spanned across a murky pool that was packed to the brim with crocodiles. The green and gray beasts were piled on top of each other for lack of space, and they just sort of sat festering in the shallow layer of putrid, green water in the squalid rendition of a swamp.

A young boy got his parents to get him a chicken-baited rod and set out to see if he could hook a crocodile. He stuck the rod out through the bars and hovered the chicken over the mass of carnivorous reptiles, waiting for one to strike. A park attendant noticed that the 10 year old wasn’t doing it right, and then demonstrated the proper way to fish for crocodiles:

You hang the chicken out over them, bob the line a few times, and then jerk the bait away right as they try to bite it.

The effect was like pulling a chair out from under someone: the crocodiles would fly up out of the pond, reach for the chicken, and clamp their jaws down around nothing but air. The crowd would then roar hysterically with delight.

Crocodiles were soon jumping this way and that, slapping their jaws shut with loud smacks and coming up empty, as more often than not the little Chinese boys and girls proved faster and would yank the crocs’ food away with shrills of delight. There was something about prepubescent Chinese kids teasing and tormenting such powerful carnivores that was a flagrant sign of our times; it was a flipping of the natural order of things: a crocodile on human turf is a plaything.

So far, so normal. The crocodiles were being fed, and the teasing just meant that they had to put some effort, guile, and athleticism into their meal — which is probably not inherently a bad thing for a caged up predator. My culturally ingrained values whisper in my ear that you shouldn’t tease animals for the fun of it, but this is China: if you can’t fuck with the animals in a zoo what are they there for?

I then entered the main building and it became clear what else this park was doing with their crocodiles: turning them into handbags, boots, belts, hats, wallets, and just about anything else that can be fabricated from reptile hyde. Crocodile heads were also being sold by the showcase full, and if you found yourself wanting more crocodile than this you could get a complete taxidermied one, bent to stand upright on two legs like a person, of course.

There were dead crocodiles and the parts of dead crocodiles everywhere, but the real horror came from what was to be done to the live ones. Two sets of bleachers flanked a small rink with shallow pools at both ends containing a cowering crocodile each. Suddenly, a geyser of water squirted up from the center of the rink, and two men in matching skin tight red jumpsuits appeared. Applause, waves, bows. Showtime.

Each of the performers then went to opposite sides of the rink and grabbed a crocodile each from the small pools. They dragged the beasts onto center stage by their tails. The poor things limply allowing themselves to be towed around, as though they were sacks of grain rather than living creatures that could tear their tormentors to shreds if they so chose. These animals appeared to have given up all hope long ago, they were fully and completely zombified. Like so, they needed to be prodded with sticks to show the crowd that they weren’t dead yet.

Each performer carried a two foot long baton, which they remorselessly jabbed into the sides of the crocodiles relentlessly. Rearing from the blows the reptiles would double up, swinging their heads and open jaws towards their assailants. Apparently, this was the result the men in red were looking for; applause resounded.

One of the performers then towed his giant reptile onto center stage as the other allowed his to scurry back into hiding in the pool. The man in the spotlight then began cracking the crocodile over the head and snout with his baton, finishing up with a few good smacks paid to the animal’s eyes. The beast clenched its eyes shut and opened its mouth wide. The performer stuck his hand inside, twisting and turning it. Showboating. The crowd cheered. When he pulled his hand out the croc snapped its jaws closed. More cheers.

It was then the other performer’s turn to take center stage. He fetched his respective croc and he dragged his croc into the middle of the rink. After cracking it over the head and eyes a dozen or so times with his stick, he stuck his head inside its gaping mouth.

The crowd was now floating on the wave of ecstatic mania. Adults were snapping photos, kids where clapping. One little fatty broke the top portion off of his plastic toy battle ax, turned the handle into a defacto crocodile prod, ran up to the side of the rink in front of the crowd, and pretended that he too was beating crocodiles. This was the type of bloodthirsty mania that takes over the crowds at cock fights, MMA competitions, and boxing matches, and I had to wonder how many people in attendance were secretly rooting for amputations and decapitations. This zoo visit had turned blood sport.

This routine went on with little variation from here on out, and then came the grand finale: one performer put his head in a croc’s mouth while the other lifted one up in a bear hug and carried it across the stage. They posed for photos.

Amid waves and bows the performers then asked for donations. They positioned a crocodile center stage, whacked it on top the head so it opened its mouth, and then encouraged the crowd to try to throw coins and bills into the animal’s gaping jaws. The croc was essentially transformed into a living, breathing wishing well. The crowd responded. Suddenly, dozens of people rushed to the edge of the rink and the beast was showered in a hail storm of coinage: one yuan, five and one jiao coins were bouncing off its head, eyes, and body, clanking against its teeth, and some auspicious throws landed right in its mouth. Little boys were whipping the coins as hard as they could while their fathers took their time to cultivate good aim. I watched as a three year old chucked out a bird shot of one jiao coins. Even mothers and grandparents got into the act, and calculatedly fired their monetary munition one by one. The mob was enraptured in hysterics, hurling projectiles at a defenseless animal was apparently something that gave them great joy.

The end of the show came when one of the performers gathered up all of the bills that were thrown into the rink into a handful and then tossed them into the mouth of the still enduring crocodile, as though it was a real life piggy bank. But he apparently thought better of giving the reptile his daily chit and reached his hand in one last time to remove the cash as jowls snapped shut one last time to end the show.

Yet again, the most interesting species to observe at a Chinese zoo ended up being my fellow human visitors.

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Filed under: Animals, China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Richard October 21, 2013, 11:22 pm

    You can apply cultural relativism to whitewash all human sins and errors.

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    • Wade Shepard October 21, 2013, 11:33 pm

      Yes and no. There is a difference between actions or perspectives that a culture has a pattern of holding in common and acts by individuals that go against the grain of what their culture considers acceptable. I understand what you’re saying here though.

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  • Félix October 22, 2013, 11:19 pm

    Wow, that’s some weird shit… but if I want to play devil’s advocate, I’d say that not all zoos are like that in China. The Harbin Tiger Park is first and foremost an animal reserve, and the big cats are left alone for the most part, unlike in that horrible tiger park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. You feel much less like a jackass when visiting it, then.

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    • Wade Shepard October 23, 2013, 12:16 am

      Definitely. This is true. The attitude towards animal treatment is starting to change. I found the Beijing Zoo pretty decent. They even had hired staff members to rile up interact with the animals for the crowd rather than letting visitors do whatever they want.

      Going to these places are a good exercise in observing cultural contrasts though.

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  • Marie November 1, 2013, 12:41 pm

    I agree, I go to places like these for people watching-

    That being said- taking a group of students to the Aquarium in Yantai several years ago, I was impressed by the well behaved tourists. Even the seal and dolphin show was more humane than I’d seen in other places… very much like you’d see in an aquarium back home. Who knows, maybe animal rights activists will take over sometime soon?

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    • Wade Shepard November 1, 2013, 9:46 pm

      This is true. If you travel to observe cultural contrasts then there are few better places to go than the zoos and animal parks of China. But you’re also right that some of these places are run really well. I’ve also been to a few that were pretty much at the same standard as the USA or Europe.

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