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Chinese Zoos: An Intercultural Experience

Visiting a Chinese zoo is truly a practice in cultural relativism.

For 60 RMB you can feed a tiger a chicken. For around 600 you can watch as a pack of lions take down a cow. For the Chinese, merely looking at animals in a zoo doesn’t seem to be enough: they want a show. Whether it’s paying to watch predators rip apart live prey or shoving cookies, potato chips, or random plants through the bars to watch herbivors eat, zoos in China promise to be vastly more of an interactive experience than they are elsewhere in the world.

After watching an exhibit full of monkeys in the Nanjing zoo eating and fighting over garbage, snack foods, and sodas that visitors would throw in to them, and visiting the zoo in Suzhou, I knew what to expect when I walked into the animal park of Taizhou. When you watch a culture doing things that you’ve been socialized to believe are taboo it holds your attention. Some could say that this is a part of the entertainment value of travel. Getting to those places where the people think and act differently than you is what it’s all about. It’s difficult to take a voyeuristic interest in people of your feather, you need to travel to be intrigued by culture. This is never more clear in China than when in a zoo: it’s not the animals who are the entertainment, it’s the people.

Bears get oranges

Bear being fed oranges.

I saw a long, fat tongue flick out from between a small opening in an animal enclosure. It shot out of a thick, brown, furry snout and collected a piece of an orange that a human visitor had prompted it to take. I stood on my toes and saw that the tongue and snout were connected to a bear, and he seemed to relish the treats that the visitors passed through the little hole. Each time a fresh piece of orange was laid on the ledge near it, the tongue would flick out and taste it. Each time this would happen the crowd would get excited and revel in photo taking.

The bear exhibits are some of the most active in China, as these animals tend to be very responsive to the food that visitors offer to them. In Suzhou, I watched a bear who could catch pieces of food that were thrown to it.

Tiger in a cell

Tiger pacing around an enclosure.

Bang, bang, bang, a group of visitors pounded on the glass enclosure surrounding a tiger. The giant cat just paced slowly back and forth across his 15′ by 20′ cell, ignoring the commotion. The floor of the enclosure was bare grey concrete and the room was conspicuous for what it lacked: everything. The tiger lived in a cage that was nothing more than four walls and a roof. There was nothing else inside — no trees, no big rocks, no mats, no bedding, nothing but cold concrete, an electric fence, and glass walls. There wasn’t even a balk at providing any “natural habitat” props. All the better to gawk at the animal inside, I suppose.

Camels

Camels being fed by visitors.


“Why do these trees have no branches or leaves?” I thought as I rounded a bend and looked out upon a small orchard of naked trunks. It did not take long before I realized the reason for this.

In front of the camel exhibit stood a mother with her daughter and a big bag of leafy greens, branches, and pieces of shrubs. They had apparently scoured the zoo for foliage to feed the animals. I watched as they reached over the barrier and shoved handfuls of plant matter between the bars of camels’ cage. The two giant, shaggy, hump backed ungulates gobbled down the offerings with gusto. Again, the small crowd shrilled with excitement. A young guy then began hand feed the giant, slobbering beasts. Lots of smiles.

Although there were signs that said, “Don’t feed the animals,” this regulation seemed to fall right alongside traffic laws and smoking bans in the very broad category of petty rules that Chinese people simply ignore. Barriers and signs do not inhibit the people of this country from doing what they want to do. If there’s not a person employed to stand around telling them to obey the rules then they must not be too important. There is a healthy disrespect here for petty authority and there’s a widespread notion that the population is too large to be controlled — two things that I like most about this culture.

Come on monkey, just take a toke

Baboon being offered a cigarette.


But then I saw something that challenged even my flabby sense of cultural relativism. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a monkey reaching his hand through the bars of his enclosure and seizing a short white stick that a young guy handed to him. It did not take long before I realized that it was a cigarette. It did not take the monkey much longer before he realized that it was hot. The poor primate burned his hand, screamed, bobbled the cigarette and then knocked it away from him.

This was apparently the show the guy who passed in the cigarette was looking for. He lit another one and tried once again to pass it in to the monkey. It wasn’t happening — primates learn from mistakes, and this monkey had learned not to take flaming sticks from assholes. So the guy moved on to the baboons and tried his ruse once again. The baboon just looked at him blankly, not taking the offering but still holding his open hand out through the bars of his cage. This baboon had apparently been there before, and he knew what he wanted: snacks. Getting the point, the crowd passed in various types of hard candy. The macaque next door also got in on the act, and I lost interest while watching him suckle a caramel.

Inspecting his burned hand.

Conclusion

“What do you think of China?” I asked a Dutch traveler recently in Shanghai.

He thought for a moment before replying, then said, “China is different.”

Exactly.

Filed under: Animals, China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Brooklyn, New York

3 comments… add one

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  • Russ November 30, 2012, 6:38 pm

    As I was reading this, first thing I thought was how in the US people would raise hell citing mistreatment of the animals by allowing them to be given cigarettes or any sort of junk food. The zoos I’ve been to here typically frown on that sort of behavior and do their best to prevent this stuff from happening, and still there are often complaints raised about animal mistreatment. But then I reminded myself about what you often say, how taking your own expectations into foreign countries is never a good idea, and expecting the entire world to operate according to protocol that we learn in the US is nonsense. But there’s still a part of me that is actually kind of surprised that there aren’t concerned animal handlers at those zoos who worry or try to change that stuff. I know the world is a strange and silly place, and I guess if they think it’s entertainment to stuff animals in cages and to try to give cigs to monkeys, that’s their business. And come to think of it, the whole notion of zoos at all is silly. Caging wild animals citing education and preservation as the reason, whether or not the tiger has fake habitat or not to “enjoy”, is still pretty much a no win situation for the animal.

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    • Wade Shepard November 30, 2012, 9:43 pm

      For sure, I felt my strings of cultural relativity being tugged as well here. It may be good to mention here that dancing animal shows were recently banned in China, so this is sort of where people here are coming from. When it comes down to it the Chinese model shows the reality of what zoos are: zoos are for human entertainment. How can I slight people for expecting to be entertained at them? Well, I guess when they start giving cigarettes to monkeys 🙂

      But, actually, people in the USA use to do things like this too. I just read a story about a chimpanzee at the San Diego zoo who recently died after smoking for decades (died of old age, unrelated to the smoking). He started smoking when visitors would throw their cigarettes into his enclosure — like in the video above — and then he became sort of a locally famous side show. U.S. culture had changed fast in regards to a lot of aspects of the society, and I can see the same patterns starting to be taken on in China (although it’s just bare flickers at this point).

      I published this article for two reasons:

      1. To show a comparative contrast between cultures.

      2. To document a behavior that I predict will fade away very soon.

      Like how U.S. culture changed drastically over the past four or five decades, the same is happening in China. The Beijing zoo is one of the most legit, well run zoos I’ve ever been to. Though I don’t believe that it’s typical for zoos in this country, it shows the direction that the culture is turning in regards to animal treatment. Beijing actually had workers employed to stand out in front of some of the exhibits whose job it was to interact with some of the more social animals and put on a show for the visitors. So rather than having masses of people banging on the glass and acting like monsters there are trained (apparently) liaisons who jump around and hoot like an ape and interact relatively appropriately with the primates and provide visitors with background information on the animals they’re looking at.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  • AndrewT March 7, 2013, 4:47 pm

    This is beyond an Eastern/Western culture divide. What really bothers me is that it is common sense to treat other living things, even zoo animals, with dignity and respect.
     
    This is shocking and disheartening. Everytime I read about the treatment of animals in China, I don’t believe humans are fundamentally good.

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