Will global pressure help the 'world's saddest' polar bear?

More than a million people from China and abroad have signed a petition urging organizers of China’s Grandview Shopping Mall to close its zoo.

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.

Pizza, the polar bear kept in China’s Grandview Shopping Mall – dubbed the world’s saddest zoo – may have found its savior in a million global petitioners united by several international and Chinese animal rights groups.

The Humane Society International and 50 Chinese animal groups as well as Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation gathered more than one million petition signatures after the issue was brought to light earlier this year, sparking international outrage over what they found to be inadequate conditions in Pizza's enclosure. An open letter was sent to Guangdong province Gov. Zhu Xiaodan on Tuesday, urging him to close the aquarium.

“We welcome the one million petition signatures from concerned citizens around the world, as they have helped to raise much needed awareness about the animals at this mall who deserve so much better than being enclosed in a glass box to attract shoppers,” Hongmei Yu, founder and president of Vshine Animal Protection Association, the HSI’s partner in China on this issue, said in a press release. “There is a worrying trend in China of wild animal exhibits in shopping centres, with another one reportedly being considered right now in Shijiazhuang, Hebei. It shows a complete lack of regard for their welfare.”

While mall operators may find wild animal exhibits gaining popularity in China, they run counter to a global trend toward more humane treatment of animals. Most recently in the United States, online travel site TripAdvisor announced that it will stop offering tickets to wild animal attractions, while SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment has been pressured by activists to stop its iconic orca shows. The mobilization of local Chinese organizations to free Pizza is also their method of telling their country – and the world – that animal rights is not a “Western” thing.

“Some people say that animal rights are a Western concern, but that dismisses centuries of Chinese history,” Qin Xiaona, president of the Chinese Capital Animal Welfare Association told the Los Angeles Times. “We can’t forget the principles that our culture was built on, which is to never do harm to our natural surroundings and value every form of life. Through the vigorous struggles of these recent years, we’ve sold out our traditions – we must return to them.”

Pizza first drew headlines when advocacy group representatives showed videos of the bear lying in an enclosed aquarium with artificial lights, murals of icebergs, and an air vent amid constant banging on the glass by tourists. The bear would pace around while swaying its head, signs that experts say indicate distress.

“Their environment is so unique. They’re such wide-ranging animals, and they start to decline quite rapidly in captivity,” Wendy Higgins, spokeswoman for HSI told The New York Times. “Pizza spends every single day on his own with nowhere to hide, just subjected to people banging on the glass and taking photographs.”

The Grandview also hosts another 500 other animals ranging from the arctic fox to beluga whales in the mall enclosures, attracting thousands of people on peak days, as reported by The New York Times.

The company has met the criticism and petitions with denial, saying that the operations were developed under guidance from animal specialists.

"Grandview Mall Ocean World has always operated with an ‘animals first’ philosophy, focusing from the outset on animal protection, scientific discovery and education,” the company said in a statement, as reported by the LA Times, continuing that “some groups acting on ulterior motives and personal vendettas will be reported to the relevant government authorities, and [Grandview Mall Ocean World] reserves the right to take legal action.”

A zoo in Britain had earlier offered to host Pizza but was declined by the company, which said there is “no need for foreign organizations to get involved.”

China currently has no animal rights law, and guidelines from the Ministry of Agriculture regarding captive wild animals are broad and vague, according to the LA Times, leaving the only solution to be leveraging public opinion.

“If the mall thinks foreign groups are not needed, let them meet with us Chinese groups instead, because we too care passionately about these animals and want to give them a better life,” Ms. Yu said. “There are no more excuses left for not taking action.”

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