A Zed & Two Noughts

img_1709“Beijing Zoo is a paradise with its luxuriant vegetation, elegantly meandering water systems, scenic landscapes and various animals in good health.” – Xicheng District Tourism Administration

And so another Xmas has passed, and the western new year has trundled towards us like an old Chinese lady on a moped who doesn’t give a damn that you aren’t supposed to mount the pavement with those things. If dancing on the table with other foreigners at KTV and watching mawkish Hollywood fare with the gf didn’t exactly melt my heart then it has at least defrosted it slightly.

I spent Boxing Day at Beijing Zoo. I have mixed feelings about zoos. A travel writer whose name escapes me once said that if all zoos are animal prisons then Beijing must be death row. I think that’s unfair. Although mainland China isn’t exactly renowned for its track record when it comes to animal rights, looking at Beijing Zoo as nothing more than the Alcatraz of the animal kingdom, where an ironically cast Patrick McGoohan keeps a beady eye on the red pandas, is as ignorant as it is laden with references to classic Clint Eastwood movies.

When I was in Vancouver, I met a lot of international travelers (it goes with the territory when one works in a hostel). Many of them would ask about popular tourist destinations or just ‘things to do’. When the Vancouver Aquarium was mentioned it was often dismissed outright with some variation of “I don’t do zoos or aquariums”. It’s easy to empathize with such a philosophy (I absolutely do not ‘do’ animal circuses, for example). It’s also easy to turn up a nose and say that no one should visit a zoo in a million years, and that people should only visit animals in their natural habitat. But the bare-faced fact is this: the average Chinese person has about as much opportunity to go on an African safari as the average Kenyan person has of visiting Yonghegong. Everything from wages to potential visa snafus count heavily against it.

Beijing Zoo, whatever its faults may be, is a chance for educating people, young and old, about the fauna of the world. I’ve now been there twice and I don’t feel that the reputation it has in some quarters is deserved any more than other zoos I’ve visited (in London or Calgary, for example). In an ‘ideal’ world, zoos wouldn’t exist. But neither would sweatshops, coal mines or The Jonathan Ross Show.

It’s admittedly a mixed bag. The panda house is very impressive, while the king (and queen) of the jungle aren’t blessed with quite so much space. The elephant enclosure is, in my opinion, inadequate. So much so that the Chinese colleague I went with the first time refused to go in with me.

I urge you not to take my word or opinion on this, and to make your own visit. The (financial) cost is ¥10 on the door, with the panda enclosure costing ¥5 extra (assuming you avoid the ridiculously overpriced gift shop). I have yet to visit the aquarium, which has less to do with my moral compass and more to do with the extra cost of ¥150.