Most of China's 30-plus wildlife parks have agreed to ban the feeding of large live animals to big cats for visitors’ entertainment
"The move indicates that public awareness of animal welfare issues is increasing," Zhang Li, executive China representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told China Daily yesterday.
But while the accord signals a shift in attitudes, some believe only firm government action will outlaw the macabre feeding times for good.
Zhang said, "A law on animal welfare is badly needed in China," adding that the country has "laws to protect rare species of animals, but without specific legislation, zoos will find ways to circumvent the agreement."
To solicit trade, wildlife parks have been holding shows where live animals such as cows and horses are fed to tigers, lions and other carnivores. Some have even released video footage of the events.
Since many of the predators are less savage than they would be in the wild, their prey often suffer long, bloody deaths that last for hours.
Although many spectators were happy to pay to watch, viewing the scenes as reflecting nature ‘red in tooth and claw,’ others were horrified and spurred into action.
Bifengxia Nature Reserve in Ya'an, southwest China's Sichuan Province, was forced to stop the shows after visitors launched strong protests.
"The gory events could lead visitors to believe that animals, both the hunter and the hunted, are only the playthings of humans," said Xie Youxin, deputy general manager of Wild Animal World in Chengdu, Sichuan, "The bloody scenes could also encourage violent tendencies in youngsters."
Some wildlife parks argued that they had introduced the live feeding to let big cats in captivity learn survival skills so they could be returned to the wild.
But IFAW's Zhang said such a program would involve careful scientific planning and not simply throwing live animals into a pen.
Twenty five major wildlife parks in the country signed up to the self-regulatory agreement over the weekend in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The ban only covers the public feeding of large live animals, so the practice of people paying to have live chickens fed to captive predators is expected to continue.
China's first wildlife park opened in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in 1993, but an early boom turned sour with most parks now struggling.
Owners are finding it difficult to pay off initial investments, often of more than 100 million yuan (US$12 million).
Unlike city zoos, most wildlife parks do not receive state subsidies.
The situation was exacerbated by the outbreak of SARS and bird flu in the last two years, which saw tourist numbers crash and the mass culling of wild birds inside park grounds.
"Zoos and wildlife parks should play a positive role in public education, popular science promotion and scientific research, and not solely concentrate on profits," said Zhang.
(China Daily March 17, 2005)