Zoos in China generally don't maintain a very positive image in the Western media. Travel guidebooks have long trashed the conditions in which animals are kept, and a rash of news stories in Western press from this year focus on sensational stories of animal abuse and harassment in zoos around China—including stories of visitors pelting lions with snowballs, crocodiles dying after being hit by litter thrown at them, a tiger being beaten by trainers, and, oddly, an ostrich being bit to death by a man. Reactions to these incidents by Internet users, both foreign and domestic, are often outspoken and outraged.
It was thus with some trepidation we visited the Chengdu Zoo, which claims to be China's fourth-largest after Beijing's, Shanghai's, and Guangzhou's. Much of the zoo's menagerie reads like a child's book of animals: one elephant, one rhinoceros, one hippopotamus, one lion, a bear or two. Two giraffes. The animals are kept in confined spaces, some outdoor and some indoor, and many of the animals are housed in prison-cell-like concrete cages with a streaky glass front for visitors to look through and a single back door through which feed is delivered. Some of the larger mammals, such as the various panthers, in such solitary confinement, pace around restlessly while less scrupulous visitors tap on the glass to provoke a reaction from the animals.
While the reptile and amphibian—and even more so, the fish—displays are nothing short of total disasters (tiny tanks blackened with what appears to be decades of algae), and even the national treasure, the giant panda, lives in an unlined concrete box, the Chengdu Zoo does boast some diamonds in the rough. The tiger collection, for instance, is impressive and includes two white Bengal tigers, large Siberian tigers, and the critically endangered South China tiger. However, the best display in terms of comprehensiveness and apparent comfort of the animals is found in the primates section, which features, among others, mandrills, baboons, lemurs, macaques, langurs, and the stars of the zoo, a group of Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkeys. Many of these cages are open at the top, however, and some visitors ignore the blatant signage instructing visitors not to throw food and flotsam into the cages.
The back of the zoo holds an aviary, a lake where numerous birds congregate, and small ponds for penguins and pelicans. Near this is the "Children's Zoo"—essentially a petting zoo with many friendly goats (including some newborns), a cow, and a pig. A vendor also offers photo opportunities with visitors' choice of a pony, a Bactrian camel, a parrot, or a peacock. A small amusement park on the grounds holds several fairground-style rides.
The Chengdu Zoo has been at its current location since 1976. Initially opened in October 1953 as the Chengdu Baihuatan Zoo, it was the region's first display of exotic mammals, including snow leopards. At the time of its first opening, the zoo housed 114 animals covering 34 species. Today the zoo houses 3,000 animals representing 300 species.
The zoo is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Entrance is RMB20 for adults; children 1.3 meters and below enter for free.