Welcome to the Most Depressing Place on Earth

China. It’s a very interesting place. There are many adventures to be had. It’s a love-hate relationship, for foreigners. There are good days and there are China days, where it seems like the whole universe is working against you, and you specifically. There are a lot of things that make you uncomfortable–seeing a man scream at a woman, shoving her and punching the wall behind her; seeing two rickshaw drivers fight and pick up paving stones to awkwardly hurl at each other; the whole Chinese phenomenon of IKEA, watching people get into a fist fight over the hour long wait for a cab on a rainy Saturday; watching a van-full of plainclothes police grab an African man and throw him, cursing and yelling, into that van; cab drivers asking if black people are really allowed to marry white people in America; etc. And of course you read news articles about the various heart wrenching and terrible treatment of people, in factories, villages being bulldozed, children being kidnapped and sold, women given forced abortions, spoiled brat princelings crashing their cars and negligently killing people, poisonous tainted food scandals, police brutality, half-ased cover-ups trying to bury derailed trains, children being hit by multiple cars and no one giving a shit as they walk by like the body is just so much trash on the street. I’ve been lucky enough not to have been exposed to the worst of what happens in China.

But I got just a small taste of it yesterday. And it was enough to break my heart. There are so many human rights issues here that sometimes you can forget what a terrible place it is to be an animal in China.

We went on a staff retreat to promote team building and staff bonding or something like that. I don’t really know, team work and tug of war and three legged races generally aren’t my thing. We went to Qinghuangdao, in hopes of getting to the beach and enjoying some sun. The hotel was lovely, with a giant bathtub (you better believe the very first thing I did was take a bubble bath, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a tub big enough to fit a human person in), and we went to the beach. Unfortunately, it was freezing, and started to rain just as we finished up the activities. So no ocean for me. But I did get a chance to swim in a big warm pool and eat a prodigious amount of food and watch my Chinese colleagues drink baijiu. Good times. The next day’s activity was to visit the Qinghuangdao Zoo, apparently well known because of its mini safari (you can drive your own car, or take the zoo train through the animal’s fenced in enclosures) and that you can feed the bears or something.

Qinghuangdao Zoo. It’s like, the opposite of Disney. This is not the happiest place on earth. This is not where you should take your children for happy memories and the chance to see exotic animals. Misery and horror oozes out of the buildings here. I wasn’t all that enthused to go to a zoo in the first place, but it was just so much worse than I could have imagined. The first inkling was walking across a bridge over the alligator enclosure. At first, I thought it was an empty pool, because of all the trash floating in it. Seriously. Garbage, wrappers and chip bags and plastic bottles. Then I saw the alligators. But that was just the beginning.

Next came the monkey enclosure. Spider monkeys, the tiny little things, pressed up against glass forlornly, like they hoped we might save them. You enter a dark doorway: a concrete hall, with cells along one side. Cells. It smells bad. It’s cold. There’s a banging noise: the first cell contains a chimp, banging piteously against the window, trying to get out. The cell has a wooden platform for a bed, a window on the inside, and a window on the outer wall: but that view is only of empty cages outside. A metal pipe along the ceiling provides the only thing for them to hang on. Food sits in puddles on the floor. The cell is barely as big as my bedroom, maybe a 10 foot cube. A row of these cells: separated by species. A lone baboon huddles dejectedly on the wooden plank, as if it had given up all hope. One monkey is crouched by a grating, trying to talk to the prisoner on the other side of the wall. The orangutan is next to the door, poking his fingers out, trying to open it. A Chinese man brutally kicks the door multiple times with a booted foot, scaring the orangutan, who scuttles back and cowers in a corner. I have never wanted to punch/shake/yell at someone so badly in my life. Most poignant: the last cell holds a mother and infant, the mother clutches the infant like she’s trying to tell it everything is going to be fine. They are eerily human looking. This is not a zoo. This is a jail, a prison, a dungeon. This is a Soviet gulag concentration camp hell. A setting for a horror movie. As I walk out, a father approaches with his toddler son, they are happily shouting “Monkey! Monkeys next!”

Moving along, the next building is the exact same setup, only with smaller creatures and smaller cells. The smell is worse. Horrid. I don’t breathe, but I have to see how bad it is. Five tiger cubs languish. Lemurs sit and stare with glassy eyes. Food and refuse pool on the floor.

We keep walking. I feel bad for just being there, for giving them business. We want to leave. The bus however, is nowhere to be found, and we’re shepherded onto a train. It’s like a cute, open, tour-trolley, only it’s been fitted with bars and caging. We are locked into the cars. It feels a little like we’re being shipped off to a labor camp. The train starts with a burst of fumes and honking, and we putter to the open animal enclosures, first: the big cats. These animals, at least, look a bit happier, and have some freedom. Lions, tigers, wolves. Except for the prevalence of trash EVERYWHERE (seriously, China? A, your tourists can’t stop themselves from flinging their garbage out of their cars when there are perfectly good trashcans ten minutes later. And B, your zookeepers can’t be fucking bothered to pick up the bottles and wrappers? It’s disgusting), these animals have it much better than the ones we’ve already seen.

But then we come to the bear enclosure. The train stops, and the bears shamble over to the edge of their fence. They stand on the legs and wait expectantly. The driver throws a few tiny, bite sized bits of food, which are caught and eaten immediately. When the driver doesn’t give them more, they beg. Like spoiled pet dogs, only, I’m pretty sure these animals have been starved so that they give tourists a good show. There is something profoundly sad, dispiriting and awful about seeing giant, wild animals like bears begging for scraps. The train continues on, past deer, giraffe, bison, flamingos, we get a chance to disembark and pet some zebras, we walk on through a herd of goats. Here, some of my coworkers thought it would be a good idea to feed the goats, and ended up getting molested by them. If you’re going to do something so dumb as to feed a herd of goats who know by now how to mark which tourists are saps, for god sake don’t hold an apple in your hand and give them bits of it. They will follow you, butt you, and eventually jump on you, pawing at you and taking the apple from you. Goats are creepy, what with their rectangular pupils and crooked, shifty faces. More birds, peacocks, and then finally we come to the end, where the bus is waiting for us.

I didn’t take any pictures. It was too awful. I sort of wish I had, so that I could send them to someone who has the time and effort and means to protest such an awful place. If you told me that that zoo kept the bears to farm their bile (this is a thing, a really gross and horrible thing in China), or sold the exotic animals on the black market as food and traditional medicine, I would totally believe it.

So please. If you are in Qinghuangdao, do not go to the zoo. Just don’t. Or, go, and try and break the animals out, or take pictures and send them to PETA or animal rights activists. The conditions are heartbreaking and I actually wanted to cry.