Tiger Deaths Raise Alarms About Chinese Zoos
By XIYUN YANG
March 18, 2010
BEIJING — A zoo where 11 rare Siberian tigers recently starved to death is fast becoming a symbol of the mistreatment of animals in China, with allegations of misspent subsidies, bribes, and the deaths of at least dozens of animals.
The local authorities stepped in over the weekend, taking control of the 10-year-old zoo, in Shenyang in northeastern China, and dispatching experts to try to save the remaining 20 or so tigers, three of which are in critical condition.
Among the charges under investigation are employee reports that the zoo used the bones of dead tigers to illegally manufacture a liquor believed to have therapeutic qualities. One employee said he had made vats of the liquor and served it to visiting government officials.
The government action comes after years of troubles at the zoo, the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in the capital of Liaoning Province. The zoo’s animal population has declined from a high of more than 1,000 to about half that now.
The reports of animal abuse have received wide coverage in Chinese newspapers and on television. Legal experts have proposed an amendment to a draft law they say would help prevent such situations in the future, recommending its speedy adoption.
Hua Ning, program director in Beijing for the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the deaths at the zoo illustrate China’s dismal efforts to protect animals from abuse.
“This kind of mistreatment is very common in Chinese zoos,” she said in a telephone interview. “You need entrance requirements for this industry so that not everyone can open a zoo and do whatever they want.”
The zoo was opened in Shenyang, an industrial city of more than seven million people close to the North Korean border, by a businessman and the city government is listed as a minority shareholder.
Court documents show that, in the two years before it opened, the businessman gave more than 800,000 renminbi, or $117,000, in gifts and cash to Mu Suixin, then mayor of the city.
Mr. Mu, who was later convicted of taking bribes and died in prison, authorized the opening of the zoo, according to Nanfang Daily, a newspaper in southern China.
Within three years, the zoo was mired in financial and operational problems. In 2004, a worker was mauled by a tiger. Two years later, the zoo closed for 10 days because of what media reports described as operational difficulties.
In 2007, four tigers attacked and ate a fifth one. Last November, two tigers mauled a worker and were shot during the rescue. The zoo has been closed to the public since then.
Workers talking about the recent deaths of the tigers said they had each been fed the only bones of two chickens a day.
According to People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the zoo had received government subsidies totaling millions of renminbi and took in more than 12 million renminbi in annual ticket sales. But its 260 workers have not been paid for the past 18 months, the paper said.
Of the remaining tigers, the three sickest can be fed only intravenously, according to Xinhua, the official news agency.
In January alone, 26 animals representing 15 species died at the zoo, Xinhua said.
Officials estimate that as few as 20 Siberian tigers are left in the wild in China.
Like the giant panda, the tiger is identified as one of the most protected animals under China’s wildlife protection law. But those protections apply only to wild animals.