Unhappy – an animal’s life in a Chinese zoo

Wednesday 14 October 2020

In China, the show goes on. Performing animals are part of zoo culture


For the 842m people who live in Chinese cities, the natural world can be a distant presence. Much of the land in China that is flat has either been urbanised, made into roads or is used for farming. Quick access to wildlife that is relatively untouched is impossible for most, and photographer Jonathan Browning has documented this difficult, removed relationship with nature for ten years.

Throughout the twentieth century, under the influence of Chairman Mao Zedong’s slogan “man must conquer nature”, many animals in China were used and abused as humans wished. They were food, or their body parts used in traditional medicines (shark fin) and as luxury status goods (elephant ivory). Being treated as entertainment was the most consistent use of animals during the last century that entailed keeping them alive. That is now changing, with a growing animal welfare community and a younger generation more conscious of animals as living beings in need of protection.

For much of the country’s growing middle class, zoos, part of a booming domestic tourism market, offer the only available access to wildlife. The artificiality of the zoos’ habitats – and sometimes even the animals themselves – reflect the country’s alienation from nature. Enclosures will often be made out of plastics or fibres, most commonly in the form of fake monkey mountains. Statues or figurines of animals enable selfie-taking and the pretence of being up-close with an animal world that, elsewhere in cities, is likely limited to pigeons and rats.

Jonathan Browning lived for much of the last decade in Shanghai, the east coast centre of finance and a city of 25m people. “If you wanted to get away from people and the city,” he said, “you either would have a three hour car journey to make, with lots of traffic, or more easily you would catch a flight somewhere, to experience perhaps a bamboo forest that’s far from home. Otherwise, it’s difficult.”

Life size models of animals on display outside the main gates of Taiyuan city zoo, which is surrounded by low cost accommodation, factories and industrial plants in Shanxi Province.
“A ferris wheel with a sausage on a stick is a must for any Chinese zoo,” says Browning. Nanjing Zoo’s elephant enclosure is visible from the top of its ferris wheel behind, in Jiangsu Province. 
A chimpanzee enclosure in Changchun Zoo.
Encountering animals in anything resembling a natural environment is not realistic in the vast majority of Chinese zoos, and seemingly not a concern to zoo-goers. Evidence of the urban environment, as here in Changchun Zoo, is never far from sight.
A monkey at Nanjing Zoo.
A boy poses for a photo with a strapped down tiger in Yangzhou Zoo, Jiangsu Province.
The cuddly toy gift shop at Shanghai Safari Zoo.
A A circus performs in a small auditorium at Hangzhou Zoo, where visitors are welcomed to take photos with fake animals after the show.
A man with a BB gun stands beside the elephant enclosure at Nanjing Zoo, Jiangsu Province. “I saw him shoot the elephant and I asked him to stop,” Browning said. “He replied, ‘don’t worry, it’s only plastic pellets.'”
A red Panda looks onto the outside world of Hangzhou Zoo.
A visitor and a monkey share a moment at Nanjing Zoo, Jiangsu Province.
Tourists look through the windows into an indoor panda enclosure. Chengdu Giant Panda Base, Tourists look into an indoor panda enclosure at Chengdu Giant Panda Base, China.
A panda looks through the hatch in a door at Chengdu Giant Panda Base. Newspapers and animal rights groups are increasingly shining a light on the abuses and neglect commonplace in Chinese zoos, where regulation is wafer-thin.
Families climb on elephant statues for photo opportunities in Beijing Zoo.
Inside the panda gift shop at Beijing Zoo. A wildlife law protects the welfare of endangered species such as pandas, but little other legislation ensures the rights of other animals, in and out of zoos.
Statues often have more exposure to the natural world than the animals themselves, as here in Shanghai Zoo.
A small monkey at Shanghai Zoo. Species that usually live naturally in groups are often kept in isolation, which can cause immense psychological distress.
Children play with bear statues at Linyi Zoo, Shangdong.
The Elephant enclosure at Shanghai City Zoo.
A seal performance show at Hangzhou Zoo.
The reptile enclosures at Hangzhou Zoo.
Linyi Zoo, Shangdong.
Flamingos at Beijing Zoo.
Kit foxes at Shanghai City Zoo.
Two model giraffes at Linyi Zoo, Shangdong.
The main entrance of the Harbin Tiger Park in Heilongjiang province.
Albino kangaroos at Shanghai Zoo.
Deer statues sit amongst butterflies and toadstools in Shanghai City Zoo.
Some Chinese zoos allow visitors to buy a live chicken or goat to be fed as prey to tigers, by being thrown down a shoot from the bus the visitors are riding on, through the enclosure. Here a bus takes visitors into the lion enclosure in Shanghai Safari Zoo.
Part of Hangzhou Zoo’s seal performance show.
A green grass and blue sky backdrop besides a picnic area. Yinchuan Zoo, Ningxia, China. January Billboards with photoshopped landscapes such as this one around the picnic area in Yinchuan Zoo, Ningxia, are common in Chinese zoos, for photo opportunities and as background.
A stone elephant statue in front of the real thing, Hangzhou Zoo.

Jonathan Browning is a documentary photographer who has covered China and the rest of the world.

Photographs by Jonathan Browning/Institute