It was a difficult decision for me to go and find out what Beijing Zoo had to offer. I studied animal captivity heavily during my time at university and my opinion has always been shared between for and against, although I’ve always leaned more towards the latter. When it was confirmed that the Giant Panda resided there, I couldn’t resist; I recall saying for a number of years that “one day I will go to China and see the Panda”. That and the overriding curiosity of just what a Chinese zoo would entail helped justify my visit as I handed over 20RMB (£2) at the gate.
As like most places in Beijing, it was hard to believe the large, green and quiet zoo lay hidden next to a major highway – stepping inside was like leaving the city and entering the countryside. First impressions were good: wide open pathways, lush trees and a large lake welcomed me inside. In great haste I headed straight for the Panda enclosure, for it was the main reason I was here after all.
With perfect timing the 3 Panda’s, all in their separate enclosures, were about to be fed and sat patiently in full view. I couldn’t help but turn my attention to the keepers who were pulling up fresh bamboo from the small woodland that was growing – perks of rearing Panda’s in their native land. I almost forgot where I was as the handsome bear munched on his shoots seemingly undisturbed by the public and let myself imagine I was in fact observing in the wild. A harsh reminder that it is unlikely with only around 1,800 left in the wilds of China.
As I wandered around, the usual suspects peered through the glass, hid amongst the rocks and hung from the trees. There was nothing that felt alien about this zoo. I was a little disappointed with this fact and desperately searched for something exciting; a Chinese zoo ‘secret’ perhaps.
Until I suddenly figured it out: I was the alien.
It hadn’t registered that although I was within a tourist attraction, I saw no other ethnicity than Chinese. Suddenly I noticed the stares, the sneaky (and the blatant) photo taking and the mention of Meiguo ren (American person) as I walked past. If only I knew how to correct them on their observation.
As I gawped at the beauty of a Bengal Tiger, those around me continued to gawp at my face.
I giggled to myself as I imagined discussion over noodles later that night:
“You’ll never guess what we saw at the Zoo today; a Meiguo out of its cage eating ice-cream!”
Unfortunately some parts of my afternoon were not as entertaining.
As I approached a wooden statue of a Polar Bear I questioned why this species was chosen to represent the bear section of the zoo. My heart sank as I peered across the pathway to see a dirty-white shape pacing back and forth.
Behind finger-marked glass an overweight and filthy polar bear covered the same tracks across the painted white plastic floor, pausing to drink from the algae laden water. You only had to look into his eyes to understand the situation.
As I continued I watched giraffe walk in circles and big cats pant at the lack of water – stereotypical behaviour caused by boredom, stress and basic need deficiency.
It’s an ugly truth I have come to terms with: zoos provide the public with entertainment and education (if people choose to read the small information boards outside the enclosure) and in return animals may suffer both mentally and physically. I cannot help but call myself a hypocrite – why is it okay to cage a panda because I have a lifelong desire to see one, but feel disgusted when I witness a turtle in a 1ms tank with no rock to sit on?
In good old Chinese fashion I took my mind off of the conundrum for all of 5 minutes by having a go on a 6D ride. As the seat shook and wind blew in my face, I was taken away to digital world whereby I raced down rollercoaster tracks at 100mph and dodged getting swallowed by a dinosaur.
In that moment I had finally found my alien at the Beijing zoo.