Chinese mall's polar bear exhibit sparks international condemnation

The addition of a polar bear inside an aquarium at a Chinese mall sparks international outrage by animal rights advocates.

YouTube/Animals Asia
Pizza the polar bear rests inside Grandview Aquarium at a shopping mall in Guangzhou, China, in this YouTube screenshot by Animals Asia. The polar bear is inspiring international calls to close the aquarium, due to what advocates fear are inadequate conditions.

The addition of a polar bear to a Chinese mall's aquarium exhibit has sparked an international outcry among animal rights advocates and a discussion about captive animals.

As concerns for animal welfare intensifying internationally, advocates are calling for the Chinese mall to disband the entire zoo over fears that limited enclosure space unduly restricts the animals.

The Chinese city of Guangzhou made international headlines after the Grandview shopping center added a polar bear to its aquarium exhibit. Videos of the bear lying in his blue aquarium prompted 310,000 people to sign an Animals Asia petition to free what animal rights enthusiasts are calling "the world's saddest polar bear." 

The petition calls Pizza, the polar bear, "The tragic polar bear that suffers for selfies." 

The Animals Asia advocacy group visited the park in April, where advocates were dismayed to find tourists banging on the glass enclosure so the animal would pose for selfies. 

For their part, management at the theme park – which also houses five walruses, six beluga whales, and two Arctic wolves – has expressed surprise at the outrage inspired Animal Asia's videos.

"The polar bear in the aquarium is very happy," its deputy manager, Li Chengtang, told local reporters, as The Independent reported. 

Management has expressed willingness to cooperate with the animal advocates as a result of publicity. Representatives from Animals Asia are advising the managers on measures to improve the animal habitats, calling it a compromise measure that will improve the animals' well-being.

"Threatening frequently changes little – while walking away changes nothing. Staying and talking and working together means there's an on-going chance for positive change," Dave Neale, Animals Asia's animal welfare director, wrote in a blog for the group. "The day after our visit [at Grandview], following our basic recommendations, the bear keeper provided piles of snow for the bears and is now starting a programme of enrichment."

This give-and-take between animal advocates and the management of circuses, aquariums, and animal shows is becoming a worldwide pattern as more people develop concerns about whether animals are "happy" or "sad." Mr. Neale described a similar pattern over years of advocating for more animal-conscious policies at the Hanoi Zoological Gardens in Vietnam.

"We talked them into unchaining elephants so they could walk around their enclosure. We built structures for bears and tigers to climb and rest on," Neale wrote. "And – after gaining their confidence over an extended period – they quietly told us they had listened and they would be closing their animal circus."

In the United States, SeaWorld Entertainment has made numerous stepwise changes in response the public outcry following a CNN documentary about the theme park's orcas. The outcry revealed a declining public interest in performance animals, Jessica Mendoza reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

"There's a larger interest in what's going on for other animals ... [and] the ways that we're changing the planet," Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and co-coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., told the Monitor. "People have questioned what kind of relationship we want to have with other animals."

Increased concern for animal welfare shows itself in other ways. In January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation added a category for "animal abuse," the Monitor's Story Hinckley reported. Animal advocates called it a "night and day" difference that put the stamp of the US government on the cause. 

"When the FBI says animal cruelty is important and we are going to track it, it sends a message to others in law enforcement and the community at large saying 'pay attention to this,'" Mary Lou Randour, senior advisor for animal cruelty programs at the Animal Welfare Institute, told the Monitor. 

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