Zoo's have been a part of the government's entourage since antiquity; whether it was the leashed hunting cheetahs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, bringing the giraffes to Rome, to check out ridiculous stories of that "camel-leopard," or the royal and princely menageries of Europe. While the Egyptian cheetah's at least got out to hunt, the rest of these zoo animals have been merely for gawking at, by people of greater and lesser fortune.
Starting in the 19th century, just about anyone could see exotic animals that had been brought to 'your city' - for a small price. And again, these animals were mainly just to be stared at - either out of a mixture of curiosity and fear, or with a real desire to understand the animal better.
For those reasons, the cages were designed for the viewer, to make easy to see the animal, rather than for the animal. Thinking on this score has changed. Zoos now have fewer cages, and now have more 'enclosures.' Animals can be darn hard to find, and zoos are now as much about preserving populations of animals and attempting to educate the public as they are about showing of the fauna.
But what happens when you go to a zoo that is essentially unchanged from the time it was built as a way for an Emperor to go gawk at the oddities from his own land and abroad? And what if any improvements that have been made were done so mainly to again make it easier for people to see the animals rather than to teach or preserve? And the facility is clearly poorly funded. And it is not thought to be scientifically important or even interesting to learn about the animals and preserve their habitat?
You get the incredibly rackety, half deserted, and saddest zoo I've ever been to, the Beijing Zoo.
I should have had an inkling that it was going to be a different zoo experience when it turned out to be hard to find the entrance. There were 2 sets of windows to buy tickets by the zoo gates. I've already admitted to my total helplessness when it comes to reading Chinese, but by watching others, even the Chinese were uncertain which gate was for zoo admission. I wasn't the only one walking up to the wrong ticket windows and being redirected. Even if all the words were unreadable to me, a picture, painting, or even a sketch of a panda would have given us a clue. Nope.
Well, after all the standing in the wrong line, dodging insistent, persistent toy peddlers , and finally getting out tickets, we were able to get inside. And we headed first to the Pandas.
They have their own separate area that costs an extra 10RMB to enter. We'd paid that at the gate, so no sweat. And we entered the 1st, and oldest, Panda house. I have no pictures of the pandas there as the cages were 1 panda at a time, small, barred, dim and we could only barely see the pandas moping in the dark corners.
The 2nd Panda house, the Olympic Games Panda House was much less "old school" zoo. Though a mere 3 years after the Olympics all the metal work is rusting, the facing bricks are falling off, and the concrete is cracking.
Though inside these pandas do have a big sand pit with big windows opening them to the sky, rocks to climb on, and a tumbley pile of bamboo to actually frolic in while they are eating it. I just wonder how long this panda pavilion will be this nice.
There's much of the zoo that is little, stone faced, concrete floored cages where animals huddle against the bars or walls, and look out our you forlornly, startled or ignore you completely.
Though being a zoo presently under much less threat of being sued if children fall and get messy or hurt there are some fun signs.
|The only thing to keep you or your children from falling in is a yellow line you should not cross.|
Being there in the winter also means you may see sights you never thought to see.
|Yes, that is a pelican standing on the ice|
At about that point we were as cold as those pelican's feet, so we looked about for lunch. This was a point where my sense of how much food cost got all confused again. Each of the dishes was 4 - 8 RMB. And after 20RMB coffee, I was expecting bread plate sized serving for those prices. So we ordered three dishes - pork and green peppers, vinegared fried potatoes (something I have never found in the US, but LOVEloveLOVE!), and celery with lily bulbs. And tea. These were mountains of food. We ate until we were warm and stuffed.It was some of the best food I have ever eaten at a zoo that I did not bring myself. Including tea it was about 25RMB ((no tipping in China, at least not at restaurants... lots of other places though.) Or just over $6. You can't even get a truly lousy hamburger at a US zoo for that. So sad animals but tasty food? So confusing.
I'm sure we could have overpaid for merely mediocre food. There were retaurants selling questionable looking western style food. But I learned long ago American style dishes spelled wrong means you are going to get something crummy.
The fact that this was built for the enjoyment and amusement of the Emperor is evident in some of the statuary and stone animals.
The large birds of prey pavilion was fascinating - and plenty of meat for the wicked beaks on those birds to tear at.
Giraffe house painted with a giraffe pattern was good for a giggle.
I really had to wonder if they even had chimpanzees, despite having cage, sign and enclosure for them. But considering the dodgy planning, I had to wonder if they hadn't just left.
|It really looks like with a good leap they could reach that wire and hand-over-foot-over-hand-over etc. their ways out.|
Near the end of our visit we were getting chilly again. So, of course, we went into the the penguin house.
I now suspect the premium of 10RMB, which is the same as what you pay to go see the pandas, was not for the pleasure of seeing the penguins but for the heated space. For starters there were 4 people in the ticket takers' box. Only 2 were sort of working. Seeing as how there were also only 4 zoo sight seers in the penguin house, I suspected the ticket takers box at the penguin house was a favored heated hideaway. There were also 3 sweeping ladies monitoring the penguin house - which is just one long hallway.
And in grand communist style - one again there was a well to overheated building with 12 doors, 6 at each end, and, once again, all traffic in and out happened through one.
For a nice mysterious touch, there was a display of a bunch of bats hanging in the penguin house.
For our last stop we went in to the reptile house. In many ways this reptile house was like any other. A large assortment of turtles, an alligator pool or two, and tanks and tanks of snakes. All with water bowl, warm rock, things to hide in, under or behind. But here, they feed the snakes while the people are there. They also leave the shed skins in the tanks. I later asked one of my husband's Chinese colleagues about this. I was told watching the snakes feed and seeing the shed skin is all part of the show. And after all why should westerners think themselves so superior - we are perfectly willing to watch seals and dolphins get tossed dead seafood. What is truly so terrible about watching a snake eat as it was intended? I don't think it makes us better to only be willing to witness animals eat if we stop them from getting their own food.
Hands down though, the oddest part of the reptile house, was the gift shop. Well at least these aren't imported.
|Souvenir of the Beijing zoo reptile house?|
We went by the zoo nursery and in the midst of the dim and seemingly deserted cages we could only find this lonely little monkey.
|Poor lonely baby!|
The Beijing zoo, I now wish had taken a few more pictures of the oddities, but dim, dark and deserted did not strike me at the time as what I wanted to bring home with me.
At least that night we had a dinner adventure ahead!