At private circuses in China, visitors can see monkeys stilt-walking, bears perching on balance bars, and lions, dogs, tigers, and other animals performing various unnatural tricks.
What the audience doesn’t see is the animal abuse and neglect behind the scenes. In footage openly recorded in August 2015 by investigators for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), animals in circuses in the city of Suzhou, China, are shown being struck by circus trainers, kept in unsanitary conditions, and denied adequate space.
According to a report by PETA detailing the findings, days-old tiger cubs are separated from their mothers, monkeys demonstrate self-destructive behaviors such as chewing on their arms, and baby bears are chained by their necks to a wall, unable to sit for hours, to train them to walk on their hind legs. The report that PETA wrote also documented that the animals lacked sufficient food, water, and veterinary care.
“Unfortunately the lack of care and neglect ... was clear at every single facility they visited,” says Ashley Fruno, of PETA Asia. The investigators visited 10 of the 300 registered circuses in Suzhou.
China has no federal animal welfare laws, so the treatment PETA documented is legal. Some cities have minor laws regarding the treatment of animals, but those are often specific to dogs and cats or unenforced.
Beijing’s recently amended Wildlife Protection Law, China’s primary conservation law, focuses mainly on human use of wildlife and makes no mention of animal welfare. The law allows animals to be farmed and killed for medicine, dietary supplements, food, wine, and other products. Tigers, for instance, can be bred for entertainment and sale of their skin and bones.
Recent amendments to the law specifically allow animal performances at privately owned safari parks, marine parks, aquariums, and circuses. That came as a surprise to animal advocates because in 2011 the China State Forestry Bureau had issued a directive to stop animal circus performances in its 300 state-owned zoos.
After a similar directive, in 2011, by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, many zoos shut down their circus acts and made public their compliance. But according to Dave Neale, the animal welfare director at Animals Asia, a nonprofit headquartered in Hong Kong, enforcement of the directive is lax. “Many zoos simply ignore it,” he says. “I do believe the ministry is simply ignoring those zoos that continue their circus acts.”
Neither the forestry bureau nor the housing ministry responded to a request for comment.
A Changing Society
China gets a lot of flak for the way some people treat animals, but animal abuse isn’t a reflection of Chinese culture as a whole, says Peter Li, Humane Society International’s China expert and a professor at the University of Houston, Downtown. “There’s nothing cultural or traditional about animal abuse in China,” he says, adding that animal circuses are very controversial and increasingly are targets of public protests.
Youth activists in cities are leading a growing animal welfare movement. Their actions have resulted in the prohibition of imports of seal parts from Canada, prevention of American rodeos from putting on shows in Beijing, and an end to the construction of a foie gras factory in China’s Jiangxi Province, among other victories.
Li says the fact that more people are living in cities, removed from the desensitization that comes with living on a farm and slaughtering animals for food—along with the fact that many now have their own pets—explains why concern about animal welfare is on the rise. People “are less tolerant to cruelty to animals,” he says.
Harsh criticism by foreigners of the way Chinese treat animals does no one any good, says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia regional director for the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It is, or can be, perceived as racist or imperialist,” she says. Pointing the finger at other cultures and painting them with a broad brush is more likely to breed resentment than encourage change, she says.
“I want to emphasize that for any NGOs and for animal-loving people, if you really want to create change, you need to work with Chinese animal lovers from within the country,” Ge Gabriel says.
Although no law exists to shield animals at the circuses in Suzhou and elsewhere in China, ordinary people can help. “For this to stop, people need to stop going to circuses,” Fruno says. “Not just in China, but everywhere in the world. Because every ticket that you buy is paying for this animal’s suffering to continue.”
Kristin Hugo is a freelance journalist with a focus on biology and multimedia. Follow her on Tumblr.