New work: China’s Zoos

Chimpanzees huddle near a heat lamp for warmth in their cage on a cold winter day in Hefei, China.

I promised to post a short edit of my project documenting China’s urban zoos a couple weeks ago, and it’s taken me a bit longer than expected to get it up here. Here it is, finally.

China’s zoos are just about the most depressing place in the world. Once beautiful, once majestic, the animals are, in some cases quite literally, wasting away in their cages. I’ve seen animals with open, festering sores (the puma below), a cow whose overgrown hooves looked skis (pictures couldn’t be made), muzzled animals performing for screaming fans or posing for photographs (the bear below), and countless animals either listless and unkempt in their filthy confines, or angry and frustrated, pacing back and forth in their too small cages.

Visitors crowd around the entrance of the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China. Visitors gather around the entrance to the lion and tiger house at the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.

The zoos are enormously popular. From Beijing in the north to Sanya in the south, and many places inbetween (Hefei, Shanghai, Nanjing, Qingdao, Tianjin, and elsewhere) the conditions of the animals are uniformly awful. But the crowds pour in. Ticket prices are low, sometimes less than a dollar and never more than 5 dollars per person, it’s a cheap and easy way to entertain children and the family for the day. Just as in the rest of the world, the zoos offer the only chance for the Chinese population (majority urban, as of this year) to come face to face with the wide wild world outside of the cities. In China, again much like in the rest of the world, the development of these cities is a major reason that these animals’ habitat is disappearing. There are greater problems in China, surely, but the zoos serve as stark contrast between China’s once great wilderness and its now great cities.

An injured black panther lays on the cement floor of its cage in the Qingdao Zoo in Qingdao, Shandong, China.

Photos of tourists posing with a captive bear hang on a wall near a bear enclosure at the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.

 I started going to zoos when I first moved to China in fall 2007, mostly due to an episode of the excellent radio show Radiolab about the development of zoos from the Roman Coliseum to now. China is by no means the only culprit in the horrible treatment of captive animals. Abuse in zoos and circuses is widespread, and the world’s leading zoos only started housing animals in habitat-style cages in the 1970s, starting with a gorilla enclosure at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. China’s well behind the curve on the refurbishment of their urban zoos, but there are glimmers of hope.

Visitors to the Beijing Zoo surround a squirrel monkey enclosure in Beijing, China.

An asian black bear stands against the wall of a dirty, feces-covered enclosure at the Qingdao Zoo in Qingdao, Shandong, China. The asian black bear is listed as a vulnerable species.

In many of the zoos, the most active and most popular animals now live in enclosures approaching a habitat. The zoo in Hefei, Anhui Province, where the chimpanzee picture at the top of the post was taken, recently opened a large, open grassy and rocky area for their tigers. Pandas often have open play spaces, and macaques and other small monkeys usually live in so-called “Monkey Hills,” which resemble playground jungle gyms. But more often that not, the animals in these zoos spend the majority of their time in small, dirty concrete and iron boxes.

Visitors to the Tianjin Zoo feed bunches of leaves to giraffes in Tianjin, China. A visitor to the zoo poses with a bear wearing a muzzle in the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.

I started photographing the project in black and white, but quickly switched to color when I saw the conditions of the cages. The chimpanzee picture at the top, for instance, relies on the color difference between the warm glow of a heater and the cold, snowy landscape outside. The bright color of peeling paint on the walls of an empty macaque enclosure would lose its impact in black and white. The animals’ vibrant fur contrasts strongly against the drab concrete.

Hand-painted walls decorate an empty cage for macaque monkeys at the Beijing Zoo in Beijing, China.

A girl feeds junk food to a group of raccoons in the Qingdao Zoo in Qingdao, Shandong, China.

Two major themes in the work, reflections and iron bars, came about as efforts to illustrate the animals’ captivity. The bars offer a literal metaphor to prisons and jails. In many western zoos, these iron bars no longer exist, but in China, they give the animal something to fight against. A bear wraps its claws around the fencing, or a cheetah tries to stare down visitors only to have its eyes, the very weapon of its ferocity, blocked by the cage. In the picture of the Pere David’s deer with cut antlers, the bars strip the animal of its identity, just as when its antlers were removed.

A cheetah paces in an outdoor cage in the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.
Tourists pose with a seal as zookeepers stand nearby at the Hefei Zoo in Hefei, China.

The "monkey honor guard" waits to begin a show for tourists at Monkey Island near Lingshui, Hainan, China. An elephant stands in a small concrete and metal cage in the zoo in Nanjing, China.

The reflections give the viewer the chance to see what lies beyond the cage and, in fact, beyond the frame of the picture. Whether a desolate snowy landscape, luscious foliage, or the crowded press of tourists, the animals are often far removed from even their most immediate surroundings. This is both good and bad. The glass (partially, in the case of the raccoons) prevents the crowds from feeding junk food to the animal or throwing water bottles at them, but for others it means they can’t reach their source for food and other necessities.

A Pere Davids Deer with cut antlers stands in a pen in the Qingdao Zoo in Qingdao, Shandong, China.  Pere Davids Deer has existed only in captivity since the late 1800s.  The antlers from the species are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Visitors crowd around a giant panda enclosure at the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.

As I wrote above, the conditions are slowly improving. Here’s hoping that they’ll continue on the path toward adequate and humane facilities for the animals.

A lion lays motionless on the floor of a small, dirty cage in the lion and tiger house of the Tianjin Zoo in Tianjin, China.

photos and words (c) M. Scott Brauer. Contact Scott for licensing: scott dot brauer at gmail dot com.

11 Responses to “New work: China’s Zoos”

  1. klaus ristau

    that picture makes me sick it hard to look at.The problem today is what the hell are people doing.They go out kill or capture these animals,for $.if you can remember there was a real africa with wild animals.Then came the big white hunter to kill the animal.They used guns called elephant guns thoes darn things would knock a grown man down from the recoil.Imagine what they did to the animal.Real tough guy go kill a undefensive animal.there are only so many left and they are all in reserves there is no wild anymore sad but true.Beleive it or not some of the old tarzan movies gave you a simi good example of how it use to be.Even some of those national geografic mags and good old marlin perkins.I;ll go to a spot right now and see what is happening at the park in san diego kr

  2. Jelle Boef

    Filtered pictures = filtered news. That is exactly the case here. Have you ever contacted zoo management or the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens for comment? It is talk and talk-back as far as I am concerned and that has never been applied here. You call that transparant and accountable. I do not!

    If you really cared about animal welfare or conservation status/action required for endangered wildlife in P.R. of China you would be presenting a different image. Sure enough, our Eastern neighbours have different perceptions on wildlife, however … they do also conserve wildlife.

    If I wished to present a similar image, I could go down to any western modern zoo and provide similar insight. Which is will say not a damn thing with regard to animal welfare or good zoo management.

    Re China: if you would take your camera down to the zoos of Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing you would come away with a totally different perspective. These are modern Chinese zoos with good zoo management and conservation breeding programmes as well as major development in new exhibitry.

  3. Leah

    This has to stop

    i cant belive these animals are forced to live in these conditions for years on end

    free china zoo animals

  4. klaus ristau

    take that picture of that fucking lion off the web now,you fucking idiot

  5. klaus r ristau

    one more time i do not want to see that picture of the lion.I;;ll call the president of the usa and he will locked you in the slammer,and throw away the key i mean it i do not give a shit who the you are i;ll call a hire’up

    • M. Scott Brauer

      Thanks for the comments, Klaus. You don’t need to come back and look at the pictures if you don’t want to.

  6. klaus ristau u

    take it off the lion

    • Charlotte

      why, kalus are you so defensive.
      if you read the article its about how badly these animals are being treated, and blogs such as this, and things written and shared withing the public is the best way of putting an end to disgusting things like this going on.
      spread the word, not remove it & pretend its not going on.

      who the hell are you, obamas son?

      sick blog, nice work.

  7. Sandy

    why are you getting so defensive? you can not tell anyone to take down a picture off of the internet. (unless it’s obviously inappropriate) it’s freedom of speech. and your grammar is quite awful my friend. and i’d love to know why your threatening to throw someone in jail, when you probably lack that ability in the first place.

    obviously the person who had taken the pictures are trying to show how in some parts of the world animals, which should be treated better than what those pictures indicate, aren’t treated with much respect or any care and sympathy. so cool your jets. your pissing me off.

  8. Stephanie

    Thank-you for sharing this with us. Although, many zoos across the world including Australia have some would argue adequate welfare standards it is clear many zoos in China have a long way to go. Until people push for increased welfare, allowing animals to express the 5 freedoms they deserve (i.e. natural behavior) welfare standards (in my opinion) will never be adequately reached. Instead of funding for zoos, governments should do more to preserve their own native animals and create reserves which allow animals a greater degree of liberty.

    Thanks again. A very moving blog.

  9. boolida

    that is a leopard not a cheetah.

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