An unfortunate donkey was no match for tigers in a Chinese zoo. Photo: iStock
An unfortunate donkey was no match for tigers in a Chinese zoo. Photo: iStock

Last week, I was surprised to see the unassuming minor city where I made my home last year hit international headlines. What didn’t surprise me was that the headline involved a horrific spectacle of animal violence at the zoo. Yancheng Safari Park in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, drew international attention when shareholders fed a live donkey to tigers in a video that went viral. Having been to that zoo, I can say such behavior is only a step above ordinary.

On Monday, June 5, some angry investors at Yancheng Safari Park offloaded a donkey from the back of a truck and tossed it into the moat of the tiger enclosure. As onlookers watched in excitement and horror, two tigers set about the slow and gory task of subduing their prey. The event was caught on video, which spread quickly. Viewers worldwide were horrified by the graphic animal violence and confused about how such a bizarre event came to pass.

To understand this, one must understand that Chinese zoos are an interactive experience. Rather than passively watching the animals through a pane of glass, visitors expect to get directly involved. Yancheng Safari Park is so named for the “safari” exhibit, where visitors can drive their cars along a path among free-roaming harmless animals like deer and emu. They are encouraged to bring their own outside food such as carrots and feed it to the animals that walk up to their car. They are even allowed to get out of their vehicles and pet the animals.

When it comes to the predators, of course, there is no walking among them, but visitors are offered the opportunity to feed them. For the equivalent of a few US dollars, you can buy little strips of meat to fling to the lions. For a little more money, you can buy a live whole chicken and fling it down to them. See the video below that I took of another guest doing so when I was there. Warning: animal violence.

Likewise, at the tiger exhibit, guests can purchase strips of meat to send out on a pulley system, which can then be lowered and raised, jerking the meat out of reach to tease the tigers until they finally catch hold and eat it. Thus it is no wonder that the tigers, fed constantly and unused to hunting down live prey,  spent more time toying with the donkey than killing it, drawing the process out over half an hour.

While the donkey episode was not the work of morbid zoo attendees, but rather shareholders staging a protest, one can see how it might have been inspired by the general atmosphere of spectacle and laissez-faire oversight by zoo management. They must have been inspired by the already prevalent concept of laypeople feeding live animals to the big cats. As National Geographic’s coverage  of the event notes, the zoo lacks proper barriers between people and the animal enclosures, which would have prevented the shareholders both from obtaining the donkey from its own enclosure and from being able to get it into the tigers’ space.

A similar issue in the US caused uproar last year when a young boy managed to climb into the silverback-gorilla enclosure. In that case, however, zoo officials were on hand immediately to signal the gorillas to go inside and to shoot the male, Harambe, when he ignored them and manhandled the child. Watching the Yancheng zoo video, I wonder how the shareholders managed to drive a truck conspicuous with a donkey in the bed right up to the fence without any employees stopping them, although zoo officials did intervene in time to stop them from throwing a sheep down, too.

Both the US and Chinese events induced cries of animal cruelty, but the Chinese incident shows an astounding lack of proper zoo management as well. The notion that zoo animals should be fed only proper food by professionals is completely absent. In China, many rules are more like guidelines, and it is easy to see how the shareholders could think up their plan and get away with it.

While I wish my old home city had gotten press for something more positive, I hope this event can bring increased conscientiousness of animal welfare and human and animal safety to zoos across China.

All Instagram photos and videos included in this post were taken by the writer during her 2016 trip to Yancheng Safari Park.

Carly O'Connell

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.