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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : March 2000 : Capturing Asia's cruelty

Capturing Asia's cruelty

By Helen Luk
South China Morning Post
March 4, 2000

- If there's one thing that raises the hackles of photojournalist William Suen Kai-yuen, it's zoos. An animal lover, he has trekked thousands of kilometres around the world to capture on film the plight of creatures in the wild and in captivity.

In his new book, Crying In The Zoo (Kuo Liang Hui New Enterprise Co Ltd, $ 160), he focuses on the lives of caged animals in Asia, drawing a bleak conclusion from his visits to zoos and parks in Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Suen, a Taiwanese who moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s, is the first to admit he is not a zoologist, nor does he have any specialist training.

He has, however, spent the past seven years documenting wildlife - he self financed all his projects at his own expense.

Lugging 70 kilograms worth of camera equipment worth about $ 2 million, the 50 -year-old former magazine publisher has visited Africa more than 20 times and filmed the Asia-Pacific's coral reefs, the animals of Australia, the birds of Mai Po, and, recently, the creatures of Madagascar. He also financed his latest book.

"Zoos exist because of man's possessiveness and lust for power and control. They are the artificial product of civilisation," he laments in the foreword to this, his seventh wildlife book.

"Education and conservation are merely guises for forcing wild animals to be forever imprisoned. They have become victims of the money-grabbing acts of institutions."

Most zoos in Asia, he declares, care more about the cash potential of their animals than about their welfare.

"Animals in these zoos lack freedom, dignity and individual character," he says, explaining that this can affect them not only psychologically but physiologically as well.

"The lack of space and the ignorance, and, at times, cruelty of tourists result in continuous misery for these captive animals," he says.

While acknowledging that many zoos around the world are well-run, for example those in Europe and the United States in general, he believes that "there is absolutely no need to lock up wild animals", adding the only zoos he found satisfactory while researching his book were in Australia.

Asian zoos also engage in relatively few wildlife projects, he says. He compares this with Bronx Zoo in New York, where there are 400 research and other projects involving South America and Africa alone.

His anger stems from seeing first hand how the conditions of some animals have deteriorated in zoos. He points to a Malayan tiger and a Sumatran rhinoceros at Malaysia Zoo, Malacca, which, he says, lost their sight because of a lack of proper care. And at a zoo in Taipei, he talks about a wild goat that drinks its own urine because it has gone mad, and a chimpanzee that displays signs of zoocosis - it bashes its head continuously against the windowpane of the little brick house in which it lives.

Hong Kong's Ocean Park does not fare much better. Misleading advertisements that invite visitors to befriend An An and Jia Jia reveal the ignorance of the zoo keepers, Suen writes. They are loners by nature.

"The giant pandas would absolutely hate being confined to a 2,000-square-metre area that allows limited mobility and a poor choice of food," he says, arguing that they would have a much higher chance of survival in the wild.

If Suen had his way, the animals would not have been removed from their habitat in Qin Ling in Shaanxi Province. There, he says, they would not only have ample space, but a choice of 100-plus plants including many types of Chinese herbs, dashing what he says is a myth that they only feed on certain types of bamboo.

Occupying a total area of 870,000 square metres, Ocean Park has set aside only 13,000 square metres in total for the Giant Panda Habitat, the Goldfish Pagoda, the Butterfly House, the Mini Aviary, the Atoll Reef, the Wave Cove, and the Shark Aquarium (which "crams too many sharks in the tank").

"The area it designates for animals' habitats is ridiculously out of proportion, taking up less than 1.5 per cent of the total area," he says. "The park has always had the strange idea that it can combine a reserve for biological diversity with a playground."

For someone who obviously finds it distressing to see animals in captivity, what motivated him to spend so much time photographing animals in Asian zoos?

"I feel so much guilt and grief for the animals when I see them in such poor conditions," he says. "In the zoos, I see anger and vengeance in their eyes. They are nothing like the wild animals I see in the nature reserves in Africa."

GRAPHIC: Victims of cruelty and ignorance . . . William Suen Kai-yuen has documented the terrible plight of animals in Asia's zoos, including, from top, the Taipei chimpanzee with zoocosis; the wild goat, also in Taipei, that drinks its urine due to madness; and the Malayan tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros which have lost their sight through neglect in the Malaysia Zoo in Malacca Copyright 2000 South China Morning Post Ltd.




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