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Stop the severe neglect at Tianjinghu Zoo!

This petition had 4,190 supporters

I had seen pictures of zoos like this; Gaza’s dirt-caked lion, the United State’s roadside cages with bears, aquariums with solitary penguins inside department stores. Backcountry, unbelievable conditions. I heard about places like this, but I never expected to find myself inside one. I was in Tongling, northern China walking through Tianjinghu Park the day after Chinese New Year. I had met my new friend serendipitously on my inbound flight to Hefei. Upon learning I was planning on working from my hotel through the holiday he invited me instead to come celebrate Spring Festival with his family. We had seen a lot of this smaller city which few foreigners inhabited or even visited. The first sunny day in weeks beckoned people to break the new year custom of staying indoors. We had already taken a boatride, strolled through an arcade, and passed on an extremely rusty roller coaster when we came upon a large, faded banner displaying pictures of monkeys, peacocks, and ponies. I was so naively excited and asked my friend “does this part of China have monkeys?” “Just at the little zoo”, he said. A few kuai and a walk through a Japanese-style zen garden later, I was standing inside the walls of a place that will haunt me for the rest of my days. Like an ironic greeter, immediately inside the gate a small brown pony stood tethered to a chain. A faded sign next to him advertised an opportunity to put your kid on the pony for a souvenir picture, though it was clear from the selected photographs the pony never moved from between his two palm trees. The photos did, however, manage to crop out the unflattering chipped brick patch on which he stood, likely, for hours every day. The attendants, noticing me looking at him, threw rocks at him and laughed when one struck. I should mention, however, that he is not the first thing you see when you enter the zoo. The first thing you see is the cages. One row of cages- small, concrete, rusty bars, soot smearing the back walls. A group of teenagers stood facing one of the cages and laughed cruelly as one of the boys in the group jabbed at something through the bars with a long stick. The attendants, again, laughed. We got closer. At the far left of the row, I almost gasped as I registered the faces of the moon bears, who I had known up until this point only through pictures and articles of their abuse in the bear bile industry. Each cage spanned about 12 feet by 12 feet and housed two adult bears who were engaged in a halfhearted brawl as they bared their open mouths and blackened, rotting teeth. Sharing the bars of the bear cages immediately to the right was a solitary macaque, endlessly pacing loops about his enclosure, pausing briefly at the top of his cage each rotation to look up at the sky. To his right, a few remaining cages held exotic birds, their radiant plumage made devastatingly ironic amidst the drabness of their concrete environment. I shot a few video clips and took what photos I could and my friend ushered us along to the next section of the zoo. We passed two llamas in a small dirt pen buttressing the outer wall of the zoo and I noticed none of these animals had obvious access to food or even water. Before going closer to investigating the llama pen my friend gestured to the top of the hill towards an octagon cage containing two tigers and what appeared to be a labrador-mix dog. Traumatized as I was, I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I cannot overstate how much care and attention people pour into their pet dogs here in China (many of them have bigger wardrobes than I do) and yet here was a dog, trapped in a cage with two lean tigers, and no one seemed to see the irony. Instead, people held their kids up close and made “grrr” and “raaawr” noises at the tigers while they stared morosely back at them through the bars. I was drawn from the tiger cage to investigate an area around which many people were gathered and talking excitedly. They looked down over the edge of a railing into a deep concrete pit, much resembling an empty swimming pool. Before I could see the bottom, the crowd shrieked again and a tiny monkey figure flashed in eyesight near the rim of the pit before falling back below. Up until this point I felt I had done a fairly respectable job at maintaining the outward appearance of indifference or even amusement, but when I looked down at the contents of this pit my hand flew up over my mouth to stifle a moan and tears welled into my eyes. Torn popcorn buckets and plastic cake wrappers and sticky soda cups littered the bottom of the cage and surrounded a cluster of monkeys, clutching one another blow a small wood structure fastened by a heavy swinging chain. The youngest monkey, an infant, shrieked from time to time as he looked wildly up at the chaos above him and his mother would pull him closer into her, rocking maniacally back and forth, back and forth. The first brave monkey again tried to leap out of the pit and grasp the railing but again fell back before his body made it even halfway up the wall. Another watched from below with big, watery eyes; occasionally she picked up bits of garbage from the floor and tried putting them in her mouth. A few others darted amongst the trash and alternated huddling together at the base of the wall. An alpha male looked up from his perch and surmised us for a long, long time. This was hell. I was looking at hell. Here, in the bottom of this pit. Nowhere to hide. No way to escape. Shrieking children and desperate, helpless mothers. The traumatized comforting the traumatized. I imagined the sounds of peoples’ laughter amplified as it bounced and echoed down off the walls into the depths of the confinement. It took everything I had not to cry and scream at those around me to stop, stop you’re scaring them. When I could take no more, I saw him, sitting all by himself at the far empty end of the pit. The animal whose image I knew I would carry with me the rest of my life, whose memory would resurface intermittently throughout my normal life and bring me back to this place, rooting be back to the reason I do this work. I saw him wringing his hands and folding them in his lap, jerking his body forward in slow, panicked rocks back and forth. His face was not like the others, he was further gone into himself. He stared intently at something invisible a few feet in front of him. When people gathered above him and began yelling at him, I crumbled and had to hold the handrail to keep from falling. This most pitiful, helpless creature had absolutely no comforts in this world and still we pushed for more from him. The man kept yelling and held his iPhone up, hoping for a better picture. When the monkey continued to stare despondently ahead of him, the man threw his candy stick. The monkey was startled for a moment and hugged himself as he walked on his hind legs and moved a few meters away before resuming his rocking. It was getting dark. My friend told me we were going to be late meeting his family at the restaurant. I snapped a final picture of this last monkey and we left the pit. Walking out of the zoo, we passed a fenced-off area of turkeys, a small corral holding two beautiful deer, a trash-filled and sewage-smelling pond with white rabbits hopping along the outside, a display of comically-bad taxidermy, and finally a cage the size of a dining room table with two moon bear cubs wrestling inside. A junkyard sat exposed behind the back bars. I grabbed what video and photo I could as we hurried out of the zoo and regret so profoundly that I was not able to stay and capture more for I know what I am telling and showing you now can never fully express the profound despair of this place. As I write this now and as you are reading this even later, they are still there. I hope you will join me in sharing these experiences and their images in the hopes we can put pressure on the city of Tongling to get these animals out of this hellish place and into a new home where they can be allowed to live out the remainder of their lives with some amount of comfort and dignity.

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