China’s zoo torn between ethics and paying bills

Petting zoos are opening while big zoos and safari parks are in financial and moral distress.

On June 28, 2021, a giant panda chewing bamboos in Beijing Zoo. Photo from CFP

On June 28, 2021, a giant panda chewing bamboos in Beijing Zoo. Photo from CFP

By ZHENG Cuiying


The march of 15 elephants across southwest China has made the country more interested in animals. Meanwhile, zoos and safari parks are in distress. Over 90 percent of zoos in China are operating at a loss, according to reports from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, and the few that make money are facing declining attendances and profits.

Many big zoos in China were built by the government decades ago as educational and conservation institutions. They are often in downtown areas, easy for school trips but hard for expansion. Tickets are cheap, and rare animals are not hard to find. Most of these zoos are still publicly funded. But due to dropping attendance and poor management, some must reform or be privatized. A zoo in a northern province, which wasted hundreds of billions was recently called out by the party newspaper.

Private zoos seem to be having a better run, at least in numbers. Forty new zoos were opened in 2019, and despite the pandemic, nine were registered in the first five months of this year. Now there are more than 200 nationwide. Often named “safari parks”, they occupy large swaths of land in the suburbs, offer a larger variety of activities, and charge more than public zoos.

Financially, however, many are struggling. The pandemic has hit the business, but maintenance and upkeep are as expensive as ever. Even before the pandemic, profits had been shrinking, due to competition, poor service, and incompetent management.

Private zoos offer poor wages to zookeepers with little professional training. Weak management leads to accidents. When three leopards escaped from Hangzhou Safari Park in April, the management’s first reaction was to conceal the incident so as not to hurt holiday ticket sales in May. The next month, two tigers ran away from a safari park in Henan, killing a keeper. People found out to their horror that the tigers were bought from a circus years ago.

Aquariums are faring equally poorly. The public has long decried animal abuse in dolphin and whale shows. Financially, they look equally indefensible and unsustainable. Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, one of China’s two publicly traded aquariums, lost 1.45 billion yuan in 2020. (The company claims that attendance has recovered.) Dalian Sunasia, the other one, had to sell 44 penguins last year to stop the losses on feed as the pandemic cut off the fodder import. They were sold for 1.9 million yuan. The company reported a total annual loss of 7 million.

The pandemic has accelerated reforms already underway. Fewer new projects will be approved, more restrictions and regulations are expected, and subsidies for large safari parks are cut. The industry itself has called for the sustainable, humane, and scientific treatment of animals. Many zoos are seeking to diversify their revenue streams with merchandise, restaurants and science education. Some of them are experimenting with animal-themed recreational activities, both online and in-person, to attract families with children.

Notably, petting zoos are quickly gaining popularity, many in theme parks. The venue, unlike that of a safari park or aquarium, is cheap to build. The animals —cute, friendly, definitely not protected — are easy to come by. Attendances are great so far across the country. As people make more short trips and pursue family-friendly activities, most petting zoos expect to make back their initial investments in five years.  There are issues of mistreatment, improper waste disposal and slack regulatory compliance. Some petting zoos that tried to cut corners have already been shut down.

Public zoos and safari parks are also exploring a balance between social impact, environmental footprint and commercial interests.