why you shouldn't go to the Hongshan Zoo

When Katie suggested we spend a day off at the zoo, I instantly thought I'd decline politely. The more I read about zoos, the less I like them. They're just animal attractions of another variety and I believe animals should be free in their natural habitats {population preservation efforts aside}.

However, I had heard that the Chinese take great pride in their zoos. I had also spent my first day off cleaning and setting up my apartment, and needed some time socializing. It's nice to get out and spend time with friends. A place like China would be incredibly isolating if you didn't have people. So, I surprisingly agreed, against my better judgement, knowing that after the zoo we would be stopping by an international book shop and grabbing coffees. 


Upon arriving at the zoo, I didn't feel too bad. There were statues of pandas lining the path and informational plaques. The pandas had massive enclosures with trees to climb and grass to roll in. There were watering holes and, after researching the life of a captive panda and the efforts being made to save the pandas, I felt okay seeing them happily napping up on wooden platforms. 


Following the concrete walkway, you naturally come across the big cats next: jaguars, tigers, lions, etc. That's when my gut dropped. The cages were smaller than my studio apartment with cold, concrete floors. I'm not sure there is anything more depressing than a tiger pacing back and forth in a metal box when you know it should be running across the African plains, hunting with others like it. The cubs were in their own pen and they too looked bored. 


The wolves and bears, like the pandas, had giant enclosures with space for them to roam. Despite their large size, they were mostly concrete, and people threw oranges at the bears so that they would react for photos. All of us walked almost in silence. I felt sick. 


We'd all had more than enough when I saw a massive enclosure for elephants! Hope! Surely, the Chinese would take great care of the elephants, right? That is one of the things you learn as you travel around Asia-- how elephants are part of the history of the region. These magnificent creatures are used in traditional art. Elephants were used in armies. Their strength and empathy, a balance that is revered in Asian culture. 

I've never felt more helpless than I did seeing two elephants standing with their heads facing a giant wall, standing in a dirt enclosure. It broke my heart. I instantly wanted my money back. We all did. The four of us fast-tracked our exit from what felt like the most depressing place on earth for anyone who loves animals. 


As you leave the zoo, there is a 'petting zoo.' Looking as we walked by, there were goats, alpacas, pigeons, and puppies in tiny cages, again with concrete floors. All forced into selfies with onlookers eating their ice creams. 


I was so sad after leaving the zoo that I almost didn't write about the experience. Why would I? I have nothing good to say about it. It wasn't any fun. My new friends and I left feeling miserable. But, after telling them I write a blog about my travels, Amy implored me to write about how horrible the zoo was. Vanessa agreed. And, I think it's important to share these bleak experiences, maybe even more than the bright and shiny ones. 

The Hongshan Zoo does a good job of sharing images of happy animals in green spaces, but it's propaganda that works on sucker tourists. Which is exactly what we were on Tuesday. We fell right into the traps I've worked diligently to both help bring awareness to and steer fully clear of. Foreigners who think they are going to see the Giant Pandas of China end up walking through an episode of Black Mirror. 

I highly advise those traveling through or living in Nanjing avoid the Hongshan Zoo. Save your $6 for a curry at the Taj Mahal {near metro line 2} or buy a book at Phoenix International Book Mall.