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Beijing Zoo 北京动物园

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History of the Beijing Zoo 历史悠久的北京动物园

The Beijing Zoo 北京动物园 is located in the west of Beijing in Xizhimen, Xicheng District (西城区西直门). Today, it is in the heart of Beijing, but until the twentieth century, it was on the edge of the central city.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) it was developed as a garden and mansion for the emperor's family. It was the perfect place for a traditional Chinese garden. There was a small lake, streams that could be used to create water features and views, and small hills to add variety to the landscape. It was located on the canal that linked Beijing with Kunming Lake, the source of water for Beijing in those days. Kunming Lake was built by the great mathematician and engineer, Guo Shoujing 郭守敬 (Guō Shǒujìng, 1231-1314), during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), as a reservoir and as part of the transportation system in the area. Through a combination of man-made canals and natural rivers, Beijing was linked by waterways with the Yangtze River to the south. The canals built both before and after the Yuan Dynasty are still a feature of Beijing today.

During the Qing Dynasty, the area was maintained as a traditional garden. It had different names, such as Source of Joy Garden 原乐善园 (Yuányuèshàn Yuán) and Sanbei Flower Garden 三贝子花园 (Sānbèizǐ Huāyuán). Two temples were also built on the land at one time or another during the Qing Dynasty: Grand Virtue Temple 广善寺 (Guǎngshànsì) and Confer Peace Temple 惠安寺 (Huìānsì). Eventually, it became an experimental farm under the Ministry of Agriculture (清农工商部农事试验场).

It wasn't until the late Qing Dynasty that the land was officially repurposed to establish an experimental farm and animal collection. In 1906, 175 acres were dedicated to agricultural research. Greenhouses, testing laboratories, housing for the farmers, and administration buildings were added. They tested crops such as wheat, various types of vegetables, and fruit trees, and bushes. They even had an area to breed flowers of various types. Only 3.7 acres were devoted to animals, but it was a beginning. Animals were collected from all parts of China and a few from other countries. The animals and the greenhouses containing exotic flowers drew visitors and the experimental station combined their research mission with their mission to be a public park for the people of Beijing. The facility got its support from the imperial government, and to show their support, the Guangxu Emperor 光绪 (Guāngxù) and Dowager Empress Cixi 慈禧 (Cíxī) visited a couple of times. The second visit was probably for pleasure.

That support for the zoo didn't last long. In 1911, the Wuchang Uprising marked the end of the Qing Dynasty. For the next forty years, China would be involved in a civil war and the war against the Japanese. By 1912 the Republic of China had forced the end of the Qing Dynasty and partially taken control of government. In the north of China, this ushered in the "Warlord Era" during which local officials took over the government and often fought with the central government in Nanjing. Under the various regimes, the Beijing Zoo had many names: Central Agricultural Research Station, National Peking Natural Museum, Horticulture Proving Ground of the Industrial Department, and Peking City Horticulture Proving Ground. Leave it to a scientist, somehow they managed to keep working and doing their research under various regimes.

But even scientists could not survive the occupation of Beijing by the Japanese in 1937. Like many of the other parks and temples in and around Beijing, the open fields of the Beijing Zoo provided an attractive place to station troops, set up anti-aircraft guns, and hold maneuvers. The fields that once fed the zoo animals were destroyed and the single elephant living at the zoo at that time starved to death. The lions, leopards, and other cats were poisoned by the Japanese. At the end of the war, there were only 13 monkeys 猴子 (hóuzi) and one old emu 鸸鹋 (érmiáo) left in the Beijing Zoo.

There wasn't much left of the original agricultural research facility. The animal enclosures were destroyed or damaged, the greenhouses were gone, as were the agricultural testing fields. It would take a long time to recover, but on March 1, 1950 the Beijing Zoo officially opened under the name West Suburban Public Park, 西郊公园 (Xījiāo Gōngyuán). The zoo began to repair and rebuild. Bird cages, pens, outside habitats, and even the surrounding walls had to be rebuilt. In 1952, three horses that had been ridden during the war were donated to the zoo by Mao Zedong and Zhu De.

Many of the animal cages were built during this early period and share the spare, functional, poured concrete look of the new utilitarian communist society. Ornamentation and even beauty were suspect. Part of the design philosophy was post-war modernism, but buildings throughout China were aggressively functional because the political philosophy demanded it. The animals don't care, but it helps visitors to understand the architectural history behind the rigid rows of identical concrete buildings. At the same time, the bear, lion, and other cat habitats were rebuilt and expanded.

Animals were again brought in from all over China and the zoo embarked on an aggressive international exchange program to acquire exotics from all over the world. The first trading partners were within the Communist block countries, but soon relationships were established all over the world. Zoos have their own culture, independent of country. The scientists are interested in preservation and the understanding of the animal kingdom. They share the same budget problems, as well as the same scientific questions, and the urge to provide the best zoo experience for their visitors. Worldwide, there are exchanges between zoos. Surplus populations of animals can find new homes as foreign visitors in a new country. There, they can become star attractions, while at home they are "domestic."

It wasn't until 1955 that the name was officially changed to the Beijing Zoo, 北京动物园 (Běijīng Dòngwùyuán). With the change of name, came a change in the mission. Now, research would be centered on the animals and zoology rather than general horticulture. Other research stations were established to do research on food crops, ornamentals, and flowers. The zoo maintains a strong commitment to maintaining its traditional Chinese gardens and has extensive flower gardens and landscaping, but now that effort is to provide the proper setting so that both the animals and the visitors can find a natural island of peace in the middle of the city.

One of the hardest things to replace is the staff and the knowledge of veterinary medicine. The Beijing Zoo started collaboration efforts with the Beijing Agriculture University program of veterinary medicine, Zhongshan University, and Sichuan University, among others. Dr. Huang Fengkun 黄逢坤 (Huáng Féngkūn) was appointed the director of veterinary research. He had received his doctorate in the United States. He brought in students from various universities for internships to increase the knowledge of wild animals throughout the country. While the Beijing Zoo is the largest, there were many zoos starting to develop or restore their collections during this period. They shared the task of training the future zoologists with the universities.

The efforts to bring back animals and establish exchange programs meant that the zoo had to deal with hundreds of new animals and provide proper settings for each of them. The whole sewage system had to be replaced, new electrical services established, sources of food had to be found, and sufficient hospital and treatment centers had to built and staffed. The Beijing Zoo was able to acquire quite a bit more land during this era. Beijing was growing, but not so fast that the zoo could not expand.

The first pandas came to the zoo in 1955 and were housed in an early Panda House. By the early '60s the zoo had successfully bred many animals including: South China tiger, Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey, red panda, polar bear, black rhino, and Arabian baboons. Successful breeding programs are important to zoos because maintaining and replacing the genetic diversity of the planet is one of their core missions.

From 1958 to 1961 China experienced the Three Years of Natural Disasters, 三年自然灾害 (Sān Nián Zìrán Zāihài), a time of famine and drought. By 1960, grain production had fallen seventy percent. Acquisition of new animals took a backseat to maintaining the current population. During the early 1960s, the zoo completed just one new hall for sea lions, but was able to acquire land in the western foothills near the Ming Tombs to use as a farm.

The remainder of the 1960s was marked by an additional disaster for the zoo. The Cultural Revolution did not do as much damage as had the Japanese, but growth stopped. Many of the areas of the zoo were destroyed, including many of the new walls. Statuary and monuments were smashed, and it became harder and harder to feed the animals. Universities were closed throughout China, and thus, the stream of new veterinarians, scientists, and researchers was interrupted. Many of the students who would have joined the Beijing Zoo were sent to the countryside for reeducation. The Red Guard did not appreciate the value of zoos, botanical gardens, and museums. They were seen as bourgeois institutions for the pampered intelligentsia. Anything having connection with the dynastic periods or with religion was smashed, burnt, or otherwise defaced.

Coming out of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Beijing Zoo staff rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The new political reality of the period made acquisitions from around the world easier than it had been and the zoo embarked upon a new building program. Among the new buildings were a veterinary hospital, monkey hall, orangutan hall, marine animal display center, and a new hall for amphibians and reptiles. The Amphibian and Reptile House was opened in 1979 with an area of over 4500 square meters.

During the 1980s the population of the zoo grew rapidly in both numbers and varieties. Most of the animals were part of exchange programs with other zoos, but some were acquired as a result of expeditions mounted by the zoo itself. The Beijing Zoo started reaching out to the rest of the world as part of the new China. In 1984, they sent two giant pandas to the Los Angeles Zoo for the Olympic Games. Again in 1987, pandas were sent as visiting ambassadors to the Bronx Zoo in New York.

By the 1990s the Beijing Zoo had returned to its place among the world's zoos. Research was again active and well supported. In 1994, they rebuilt or built the small animal zoo, African elephant habitat, the Pheasant Court, habitats for rhinoceri and hippopotami, and a panda breeding research facility. In 1989, work began on a new Giant Panda Hall to be opened for the 1990 Asian Games. The Giant Panda Hall is designed on a circular pattern inspired by the Tai Chi symbol. The interior has about 1500 square meters, and there is an additional 2000 square meters of outside "playgrounds" for the pandas with trees, climbing structures, and lots of places to lean back and enjoy a snack.

In the late 1990s work began on an Ocean Aquarium which includes a performance pool where audiences can enjoy the antics of sea lions and dolphins. It was opened in 1999. After that, a new service was started to link the Summer Palace with the Beijing Zoo. You can buy a combined ticket that includes a canal ride from the Beijing Zoo to the end of Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. The boat trip takes about an hour and passes through some pretty areas. The canal itself is bordered by trees and a grassy border. In each neighborhood it is used as a park by the local residents. From time to time you will see men fishing off the side of the bank and lots of people strolling and playing with their kids. The canals create an instant park and the city has provided landscaping along the entire length that links neighborhoods.

Most recently, a large addition was added to the Giant Panda Hall. A second floor was added with a glassed in habitat for visiting giant pandas. It also has a large adjoining display and general purpose meeting area. It was opened in 2008; just in time for the Beijing Olympic Games. The display area had posters explaining the biology and habitat of the panda, bu most of the space was devoted to a huge selection of souvenirs. Eight pandas traveled from the Wolong National Nature Reserve (卧龙自然保护区 Wòlóng Zìránbǎohùqū) in Sichuan to be the first guests. They returned to Sichuan in March of 2009. In May of 2009, six different pandas arrived from Ya'an, Sichuan for a visit. They were there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic in October.

The Beijing Zoo is a vital part of the city. Nearby, the Purple Bamboo Park (紫竹院公园 Zǐzhúyuàn Gōngyuán) provides another bright green space in a city of concrete. As more and more single story neighborhoods give way to high rise apartments, gargantuan shopping centers, and sky scraper office complexes, such islands of green need to be cherished and expanded.

Beijing Zoo May Close

Unfortunately, Beijing may lose its zoo. In 2003, the leader of one of the western suburbs of Beijing saw an opportunity and made a proposal to move the zoo to his suburb. This would bring thousands of visitors, provide business opportunities, and lots of possibilities for the development of apartments, office buildings, and light industry. In other words - money. His reasoning was that the animals were potential carriers of diseases such as SARS. This in the face of hundreds of years of experience in cities around the world during which animals never contaminated humans. The move was defeated by wiser heads at that time, but greed persists. The discussion of moving the zoo began again in 2007. Developers had turned the area around the zoo into a huge wholesale market. The crowds visiting the zoo were a natural target for wholesale and retail stores. Gradually, the wholesale district began attracting its own crowds. Then the merchants and local developers began to complain about the amount of traffic - the traffic generated by visitors to the Beijing Zoo, not the traffic to their own premises. The suburban governments continued to see the zoo as a potential goldmine. Politics, greed, and opportunism may remove the zoo. The Bronx Zoo in New York, the Brookfield and Lincoln Zoos in Chicago, the San Diego Zoo, the National Zoo in Washington D.C., the Wilhelma in Stuttgart, the London Zoo - and the list of city zoos could go on for pages. The Berlin Zoo is in the heart of the city and has more species than any other zoo in the world. While I don't think that is the measure of a great zoo, it does show that you can have a great zoo in the city.

Arguments for moving the zoo out of the city include providing more space for the animals and more animals. There is no reason not to have a zoo annex in the suburbs, leaving the original Beijing Zoo intact. Another reason suggests that everybody has cars now, they can drive to the zoo in the suburbs. Not everybody has cars, in fact, it is the people without cars who need the zoo the most. A better point is made when they point out that the air is bad for the animals. The air is bad for everyone. The government should use the money it would spend moving the zoo to continue to decrease pollution; both man and animal would benefit. Finally, they complain that traffic is terrible around the zoo. My answer would be to close some of those humongous stores, but a more reasonable answer is to build parking garages with shuttles (electric) to both the stores and to the zoo. One person I talked to thought that the land should be for apartments so that more people could live close to work. I asked about Longtanhu, Da Guan Yuan, and Yuyuantan - all public parks in Beijing. Her answer was, "But those are for people!"

A zoo is for people, too. A city's livability is tied to its parks, transportation, museums, theaters, and those things that are on a human scale. It is not made more livable but bigger buildings, treeless sidewalks, and a landscape devoid of life.

Zoos have many missions. While the urge to collect, probably to vie with the Berlin Zoo, would be helped by a move to the suburbs, the education mission would be hampered. Yes, people would still go to the zoo. The Beijing Wildlife Park is 35 miles out of Beijing and the Badaling Wild Animal Park is more than 50 miles out of the city. Both parks get lots of visitors. But are they the same type of visitors that come to the city zoo? Both parks offer additional entertainments to attract visitors. In fact, there are several other animal parks that have opened in the suburbs. Do they attract the same visitors? They all require either a car or an expensive and long bus ride to reach them. So, if people need to drive their car to go see animals, there are plenty of venues to satisfy their desires. But what about the people and children who do not have a car, or a full day for travel?

Other things that can be moved to the suburbs to reduce traffic around the Beijing Zoo include the wholesale markets, the sports stadium, the exhibition hall, and one or two universities. To really reduce traffic in downtown Beijing, the Forbidden City could move to Tongzhou. You could even have a canal ride to go see it. It would open up prime real estate for yet another shopping/commercial center. I probably shouldn't suggest it, even in jest, it might happen.

Olympic Pandas 奥运会大猫熊
Red (Lesser) Panda 小猫熊

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Last update: July 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009