February 17, 2006

The Hsinchu Zoo

With extremely low expectations, I visited the Hsinchu Zoo for the first time last weekend. My coworkers had already told me that the zoo was very small and that the entry fee is only NT$10, a price so low that it sounds like an apology in advance. I had also read the following review:
If you are a true animal lover it is recommended that you don't visit this poorly run establishment as you are going to come away feeling angry and frustrated at the way the animals here are treated. However if you have never been to a zoo before, it will certainly give you the opportunity to see how a zoo shouldn't be run and view animals you might never have seen before.

However, a free entrance into the zoo is included with a full ticket for the annual Hsinchu International Glass Art Festival, which is now in progress, so I gave the zoo a try. Sure enough, some aspects of the zoo were so dismal that I wondered if the zoo had been the subject of a Dongsen news expose. On the other hand, there were some beautiful birds, interesting animals, and a lot of opportunities to get close to them, so I had a good time.

The zoo was established in 1936 and is Taiwan's oldest zoo. It seems to have come from an era when the purpose of a zoo was to allow people to come in close contact with wild animals, even at the expense of the animals' comfort. For example, in the crocodile exhibit, one can come so close to the little crocodiles as to, say, spit some binlang dregs on a crocodile's back, judging from the stain. The zoo was also founded to satisfy our curiosity about these animals, rather than to educate us about ecology. So, the title of the article on one variety of goose reads "Delicious meat quality." In short, the zoo is not trying to recreate the native habitat of the animals, it is a zoo created for its customers--humans.

In the last decade or so, zoos have added petting zoos as a way of allowing visitors to have contact with animals. In the Hsinchu zoo, you are close enough to the animals that brave visitors can pet animals even in the regular exhibits. The ostriches and emus are in an area small enough that they aren't far from visitors. The deer in one part of the zoo are not even fenced off. One docile deer actually stood on the brick path while others crowded around and took pictures with the deer. There was a general lack of supervision at the zoo, so I can't say whether or not that was intended.

Highlights of the zoo were some beautiful colorful birds, a big group of playful rabbits, the primates, tigers, Malaysian bears, and an animal similar to a tapir. In one exhibit, peacocks and other birds strolled around beneath a bridge. Looking lonely but picturesque, the only authorized mammal in the exhibit, a small goat, rested on a ledge on the faux stone wall. Fouling up the view somewhat, were rat trap cages and many huge rats, which could be seen scurrying though the majority of the zoo's exhibits. Another exhibit, which appeared to be a petting zoo, but was not open for people to enter, had dozens of rabbits as well as goats and more. The rabbits hopped over each other and were butted by the goats, making for a fun display. One child tried to throw snacks to the animals, but his throws were too weak. His mother helped by holding him up on the railing so that he could throw farther. The food was also flying in one of the monkey exhibits. The ground of the monkey island was littered with crackers.

Walking through a short corridor between some cages, I was very surprised when a monkey repeatedly threw its body against the Plexiglas walls that surrounded the corridor, as though it were trying to topple me. For me, that was the most disturbing part of the zoo, but I would not blame the Hsinchu Zoo, in particular, for that. In all the zoos I have seen, it seems that there is at least one primate that looks angry, crazy, or in deep depression.

Another slightly bizarre display showed some taxidermy. One of the best-preserved items was a pangolin. It is in the armadillo family, but on close inspection it actually looks very different. The bizarre part of the display was not bizarre in the positive sense (like the two-headed rat or mummified chupacabra taxidermy that can be seen here). It was bizarre how poorly made some of the taxidermy was, especially the lion and leopard, which make stuffed animals seem lifelike.

No report of a zoo would be complete without pictures, so this report is unfortunately incomplete.


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