Hulking apes pedaling squeaky little tricycles. Lumbering elephants hoisting their hind legs, like the feeblest of acrobats. Whimpering canines, leaping through hoops of fire. These stunts and more are touted as spectacles to behold at countless animal performance venues across China. But activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have deemed these popular routines to be cruel and tortuous.

The most shocking aspect of this issue may not be the degree of harm inflicted on animals, but instead the locales where these performances occur. They are not exclusive to under developed corners of China. In fact, the Shandong provincial capital of Jinan made one of the country’s biggest animal rights breakthroughs this past fall, after locals coordinated a social media campaign to stop a carnival featuring wild animal performances. Meanwhile, animals are forced to showcase tricks on a daily basis at parks in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

This, of course, begs the question: why is China’s capital lagging behind Jinan in the realm of animal welfare?

Mang Ping, founder of the NGO Beijing Zoo Watch, says our city’s animal rights track record has always been lagging. She cites regular performances at the Badaling Zoo and the Beijing World Park elephant show as some of the worst examples (these facilities did not respond to interview requests by press time). Mang adds that she was even more appalled to see dogs leaping through flaming hoops during her visit to the Interesting Animals Performance at the Beijing Wildlife Park on November 2.

But Cao Liang, director of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) – the government branch that oversees China’s woodlands and safari parks – says such performances are a time-honored Chinese tradition. “If you really want to focus on animal performances, I advise you to visit several wild zoos, and listen to the audience’s opinions,” he says. “Hear the ‘bravos!’ and applause after an excellent show. Ask them if this is an abuse of animals. Does the show not bring people happiness?”

Mang says onlookers had a far different reaction at the Interesting Animals Performance she attended this past fall. The event featured a monkey walking a tightrope over a pond, clutching a stick that was chained to its steel collar.

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Photo: Courtesy of Mang Ping