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Croc Attack Sheds Light on "Disastrous" Conditions at Taiwan Zoo

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
May 18, 2007
 
Disturbing allegations are surfacing about a state-run zoo in Taiwan where a crocodile bit off the forearm of a veterinarian last month (see photos).

The incident occurred on April 11 at the Shoushan Zoo in Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan (Taiwan map), and was captured in gruesome photos published by international media outlets.

Within days of the accident, it was revealed that zoo officials had been misidentifying the offending croc to the public as a Nile crocodile when in fact it was a saltwater crocodile.

Then on April 21 officials disclosed that one of the zoo's main attractions—an African elephant named Ali that the zoo thought was male—was actually female.

Authorities responded to these revelations by ordering a new sex survey of all the zoo's animals, according to Jason Fu-Feng Hung, director of the Kaohsiung government entity that oversees the zoo.

"We authorize[d] the institute of wildlife conservation to re-check and identify the gender and species of all animals in the zoo so that the public would not be misinformed again," he wrote in a letter to National Geographic News.

But the recent incidents have also unearthed serious complaints by animal-welfare groups.

"Among the three government-run zoos on Taiwan, Shoushan is the worst one," said Wu Hung, director of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), an animal-welfare organization whose volunteers have documented conditions at the zoo.

Eyewitness accounts, photos, and videos from EAST and other animal welfare agencies paint a picture of a zoo with lax regulations and poorly designed facilities run by uninformed staff.

In August 2003, while observing Shoushaun's hippopotamus exhibit, members of EAST noticed a baby hippo at the bottom of a pool.

"We told zoo workers there was a baby hippopotamus dying in the bottom of the pool," he said. "They took water out and found it. They told us they didn't even know the mother had been pregnant."

"It Was a Disaster"

Many of the photos and videos made by EAST depict animals living in grassless, undersized concrete cages and appear to be lethargic and stressed.

Photo evidence shows at least two brown bears that appear to have lost their fur and have what independent experts said are skin abnormalities. (See video of the bears.)

The experts stressed, however, that no definitive conclusions could be drawn from photos alone. They said bears lose some hair during summer conditions and that captive bears can lose hair for unexplained reasons.

Other evidence is less subjective.

Wu Hung said that in 1999 feral dogs killed four of the zoo's red-necked wallaby.

Other animal-welfare experts agreed that conditions at Shoushaun are poor.

Rob Laidlaw, director of the Canadian group Zoocheck and a biologist who has monitored animals in captivity since 1984, visited Shoushan in November 2004.

"The zoo is outdated and, ideally, should be closed," Laidlaw said. "It was a disaster."

He said nearly every exhibit is "antiquated in design—predominantly old-style grottos, pits, and small, fenced ungulate [hoofed animal] yards."

He described cages as "grossly undersized" and "barren with inappropriate concrete or compacted-earth floor surfaces, solid walls or barriers that allow no opportunity for animals to view the outside world."

He said exhibits contained no "features, furnishings, or objects to facilitate natural movements or behaviors."

Photos provided by Zoocheck show a group of oryx, a species of antlope, attempting to graze in a grassless enclosing strewn with concrete rubble.

Another photo shows fallow deer sitting on a barren, flat brick floor. A third shows three wild boars resting in another rock-strewn enclosing.

Paul Littlefair, senior manager for international programs with Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), has visited Shoushan twice, most recently in November 2005.

"I did not find mistreatment, per se, but there were some concerns about the quality and size of enclosures in the case of some exhibits," he said.

He said carnivore enclosures were "in line of sight and relatively close to what would be prey animals—large herbivores—in the wild." He also noted "little control over feeding by visitors."

"It's true that there have been several serious incidents over the years, and compared to the other large zoo in Taiwan, conditions are generally poor," he said.

He added that in 2005 he did notice improvements at some exhibits.

Have Conditions Improved?

Fu-Feng Hung, the Kaohsiung government official, was shown photos of the animals and a copy of this story.

"I believe the most pressing and professional thing to do is to organize a team which consists of experts from various fields to evaluate all aspects of Shousan Zoo as soon as possible," he said in a letter of response.

Fu-Feng Hung said EAST would be invited to help in an upcoming audit of the facility, and he stressed that the photos do not reflect current conditions.

"The condition of the zoo right now is nothing like the impression that you might have from viewing those photos," he said.

EAST's Wu Hung disagrees.

"The zoo is in the exact condition as the pictures show," he said.

"However, the turning point may come soon, as the Kaohsiung city government is now organizing a task force which aims to assess the zoo and the possibility of its transformation," he said.

Laidlaw of Zoocheck also expressed doubts.

"I have talked to people who have visited there since my last trip, and I have no reason to believe things have changed," he said.

"It would take a massive influx of money to make the necessary changes."

Shoushan Zoo officials were contacted by phone and email but did not provide responses to written questions for this article.

But a second letter from Fu-Feng Hung's office said recent changes have been overlooked by critics.

He noted that in 2006 the zoo put grass in the lion grotto and added a pool and some branches to the brown bear exhibit.

"Whether the zoo is to be closed one day or its function is to be changed to something else, our main concern right now is to try as hard as we can to protect animal welfare," the letter stated.

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