I have to admit that I’m a fan of the actor John Cleese. Not a big fan, you understand, but a fan nonetheless of some of the comic films and TV sketches that he has been involved with over the years, reaching right back to his Monty Python days.
One of his lesser hits was a film made some 15 years ago called Fierce Creatures, in which he starred with fellow thespians Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert Lindsay. And I was graphically reminded of it this morning when I went off to visit Beijing’s famous zoo.
Ex-policeman Rollo Lee is sent to run Marwood Zoo (BTW did YOU know that Marwood is John Cleese’s middle name?). In order to meet high profit targets and keep the zoo open, Rollo enforces a new 'fierce creatures' policy, whereby only the most impressive and dangerous animals are allowed to remain in the zoo in order to attract the requisite crowds.
He should have followed BJ Zoo’s policy of forgetting about the animals and just drawing in the crowds under false pretences. (If ever an entrance ticket fell foul of advertising standards, then this has to be the one!)
And crowds there were in abundance. What on earth did they know that I (still) don’t?
Of course, the majority of people head straight for the Panda area (where you have to pay a RMB5 premium to get in).
But the majority are greatly disappointed as there are only three very scrawny and mangy pandas behind dirty glass, bored out of their tiny little minds.
Outside there is another filthy scrawny panda lying on a log. No one is really sure if he is scratching himself or masturbating. (Mummy, mummy, what IS that panda doing to himself?) Either way he doesn’t look very happy.
(Once again, I am reminded of Fierce Creatures in which the 'animatronic' panda eventually has an "out of order" sign hung on it.)
Vince: What do you do for an encore, fall asleep?
Probably the cutest giant pandas are stacked up in one of the many shops around the zoo, waiting their turn to be taken to a new home and a new life, poor things…
… although panda-wise, there are some very cute Lesser Pandas with brown fur jumping about their cage and then slumping down exhausted from the exertion.
Beijing Zoo was originally the grounds of an imperial manor during the Ming Dynasty. In 1906, the Imperial Ministry for Agriculture, Industry and Commerce established an experimental farm with a small menagerie. The Viceroy of Liangjiang – a guy named Duanfang - purchased a batch of animals from Germany and deposited them here, attracting great interest when the farm, known as the Wanshouyuan or the "Garden of Ten Thousand Beasts” opened to visitors in 1908. The Empress Dowager and the Emperor Guangxu both visited the zoo twice.
After the 1911 overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the zoo became a national botanical garden. During the Sino-Japanese War, many of the zoo's animals died of starvation and some were poisoned or eaten by the Japanese Army. It is said that only 13 monkeys and one old emu survived the war.
Di: Have you any background in animals?
Rollo: Well, I've eaten a lot
In 1952, national leaders Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Ren Bishi donated their war horses to the park, which was renamed the Beijing Zoo in 1955. Staff were sent to study zoo management in the Soviet Union and Poland, and began to trade animals with Eastern Bloc countries, Japan, Burma, India and Indonesia to expand its collection.
Vince: And I want to thank you all, personally, for the incredible enthusiasm that you've shown vis-à-vis our latest new innovative initiative. You look fantastic! You're no longer a bunch of smelly old animal keepers. No, as of today, you are official Theme Zoo Visitation Enhancement Facilitators!
The zoo's development came to an abrupt halt during the Cultural Revolution as zoo staff were purged, research work stopped and contacts with foreign zoos were severed. But in the 1970s, as China forged diplomatic relations with the Western bloc, the zoo received animal gifts from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Mexico, Spain, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Australia. The zoo also organized a four-year mission to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, which brought back 157 species and 1,000 animals including giraffe, African elephant, zebra, wildebeest, oryx, ostrich, Thompson's and Grant's Gazelle, tortoises, baboon and aardvark.
So pity the poor beasts who are still left in this living animal hell. Do a Google search on BJ Zoo and you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a kind word to say about the state of the animals or the conditions under which they are kept.
The elephants are a classic case in point. Standing forlorn in a sea of mud, they are all but ignored by the passers by who rush on to have their photos taken with concrete elephant replicas!
But at least you can see an elephant or two. Follow the signs to the Tigers and Lions and all you see are what appear to be empty cages with a picture of what a tiger looks like. And as for anything remotely resembling an insect house, well there isn’t one.
Oh don't worry about Terry; he wouldn't hurt a fly. Well, actually, he would hurt a fly, being a Mexican red-kneed tarantula - Brachypelma Smithii - and therefore particularly partial to flies.
I find myself entering an area devoted to Australian animals. You know you are here by the large notices dotted randomly around.
Just in case you are not aware of it, they have kangaroos in Australia (yes, really!). And here is a stone depiction of what they look like…
Some everso clever wood working artists have also had a go at filling the Australian animal reserve with naïve art from sawn off old logs.
And this might be just as well since try as hard as I might I never get to see a single kangaroo, or any other Australian animal for that matter, although there are numerous kangaroo cartoons liberally scattered around the place.
One of BJ Zoo’s newest attractions is the Beijing Aquarium, which was opened to the public in 1999. It is the biggest aquarium in China and in addition to a wide range of fish species, visitors can watch shows performed by dolphins and sea lions.
But once again, although the shows earn their requisite numbers of oohs and ahhs, the majority of online comments describe the Aquarium in shades of “California comes to Beijing”, saying how out of character it all is. Being the stingy guy I am, I’m not about to shell out an extra RMB120 to find out!
What does impress the visitor, however, in common with so very many parks and open land across the country, is the magnificence of the great outdoors, with nature being offered a helping hand by the Chinese planners.
The zoo occupies an area of 219 acres, including 13.8 acres of lakes and ponds and these are a pleasure to walk around. Like many of Beijing's parks, the zoo's grounds resemble classical Chinese gardens, with flower beds amidst natural scenery, including dense groves of trees, stretches of meadows, small streams and rivers, lotus pools and hills dotted with pavilions and historical buildings.
Another draw for the crowds, according to an article in The Guardian last year is the exotic menu on offer at the zoo’s Bin Feng Tang restaurant.
Not having visited this facility I am not in a position to verify the story; but according to the reporter, visitors to the zoo are warned not to feed the animals, but are encouraged to eat them at the restaurant which offers crocodile, scorpion, the webbed toes of a hippopotamus, kangaroo tail, deer's penis or a bowl of ant soup, amongst other delicacies.
In the wake of the negative coverage, staff had said they would be revising the menu, so lovers of exotic food making a bee-line for BJ may well have missed the boat, I fear.
The Guardian adds as an afterthought that in the past, notices on each of the zoo's animal cages included information about which parts of the animal were the tastiest and most useful according to traditional Chinese medicine. But try as I might I can find no hint of which part of a panda to tuck into first, and whether it goes better with hoi sin or oyster sauce.
Certainly this all gives new meaning to the expression ‘feeding time at the zoo’.
[During the credits of Fierce Creatures, it reads, "No animals were injured during the making of this movie, only humans."]
For some people the sheer excitement of Beijing’s Zoo is obviously too much to bear…
Vince: Oh, were you asleep?
Rollo: Uh, yes. Uh, filthy habit I picked up in the Far East.
I decide that all this excitement is far too much for one day and with tears in my eyes I head for the uncaged Great China Road Hog outside the zoo’s gates and head on back to the Subway, whose BJ Zoo station is decorated with some of the animals that it might have been nice to see for real.
Looking on the bright side, I guess one thing I was spared was seeing the zookeepers dressed up in lemur or giraffe costumes.
But frankly, I honestly believe that if you were just to place lots of stone and plastic animals around a naturally beautiful park you would have no problem whatsoever in attracting hoards of Chinese to your amusement park. Maybe zoos in the west have something to learn from the inscrutable Orientals after all?