BEIJING Friday, February 8th 2008, 2008 -- The Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Park in Guilin, China, has long been a favorite target of international animal rights groups because of the live animal sacrifices and the taunting and torture of animals that have been performed there for years, to mostly enthusiastic audiences.
The Guilin zoo is one of China's largest, boasting a tiger farm with over 1,300 cats and scores of other animals.
It is also the prime example of the shocking practice that is common at zoos and animal parks across China, which make them seem more like a sick circus than the kind of zoos you find in the west.
Animal rights groups have been critical of the treatment of animals here for years. But it's been going on virtually unabated.
But as the Beijing Olympics approach, critics hope new light will be shed on the controversial zoos.
Rock star Paul McCartney said he will boycott the Beijing Olympics after seeing footage of another controversial Chinese tradition: The wholesale slaughter of cats and dogs for their fur.
Critics charge the animals are often beaten and skinned alive or thrown into vats of boiling water. "I wouldn't even dream of going over there to play, in the same way I wouldn't go to a country that supported apartheid. This is just disgusting. It's against every rule of humanity, " McCartney told The Guardian newspaper in 2005.
At most zoos in China, the routine is similar: Tiger and bear trainers prod and poke the animals in order to provoke them. Tigers are trained to ride around the ring atop apparently petrified horses.
At some zoos, lions and tigers are fed live chickens, goats and even horses, triggering a feeding frenzy as the cats devour their hapless prey in front of visitors.
And the tourists seem to love it.
When we visited Guilin recently, I had read reports that the animal park's restaurant was selling tiger meat and so, armed with a small video camera, we went to see if it was true. Upon entering the park, things seemed normal. Tigers and bears were in large pens and visitors snapped photos. It was when we went to see the "show" that the true nature of the place became clear. And what we found afterwards was arguably more disturbing.
As the performance opened, about 20 tigers were led into a ring and lined up next to one another. Trainers began to poke at them, attempting to get them aggravated, so they would growl for the audience. Then, two terrified horses were brought into the ring, the tigers were put on their backs and they ran around the ring several times, much to the crowd's delight. One tiger was then placed atop a large ball and forced to roll on top of it while a trainer poked him with his stick.
Several tigers had to jump through rings of fire and those that resisted were prodded until they did. Then, the circus trainers led the tigers out and brought in a dozen black bears. The miserable-looking bears were also forced to perform acrobatic-type stunts. One trainer repeatedly yanked on the chain leash around one bear's neck and hit the animal several times. When the bears were led off, a goat came into the ring and walked a tightrope with a small monkey on its back, also at the urging of a trainer's metal prod.
Admittedly, it is pretty amazing to see. But for one who is accustomed to American zoos and circuses, it seems disgusting when you see the way the animals are treated by the trainers. And it is not just the trainers that approve of these practices.
After the show was over, we took a tour of the place. In one area, visitors are allowed to take fishing poles with apples on the hooks. Then, they are allowed to get close to a pen of black bears and they can tease them with the apples. The eager bears chase the apples, tripping over one another.
Then we encountered the worst of it. A tiger was placed atop a box out in the open. It had a chain leash around its neck. The tiger appeared to be drugged, although the trainers told us it was just sleepy. For about one dollar, tourists can get close to the lethargic tiger and pet it or take photos.
After seeing this, it was time to get out of there. On our way out, we went to the shop to see what was being sold and found tiger bone wine, an elixir that is allegedly made from the bones of dead tigers and sells for more than $100. The wine has been made for centuries in China and is purported to help sufferers of arthritis and rheumatism, but it has come under criticism more and more as tigers worldwide have become an endangered species. China banned the sale of tiger parts in 1993. Xiongsen has tried to persuade the Chinese government to ease restrictions on the sale of tiger bone wine, but they were denied again last year. Still, operating within some murky gray area, the Xiongsen Tiger and Bear park is still allowed to openly sell the wine within its walls.
The restaurant that allegedly sold tiger meat was closed the day we went, perhaps because of the recent reports and the criticism that ensued.
But many would argue that the selling of tiger meat is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg of practices at Chinese Zoos that should be reevaluated.