Inside a glass-fronted enclosure at a bustling mall in China, a polar bear named “Pizza” paces around restlessly, swinging his head in frustration over and over. He finds neither comfort nor companionship; only throngs of gawking people, mainly kids, running back and forth, banging on the glass for his attention as they take selfies. It’s just one creature in a world with billions at risk, but it’s heartbreaking nonetheless. There are hot lights overhead and a fake plastic iceberg, but no companions, no offspring, and no snow or ice or arctic winds or currents. He spends hours a day sniffing and tapping at the air vent — his only hint of an outside world that is farther away than he can possibly know.
Pizza’s condition is indicative of a growing trend in China where captive animals are put on display at shopping malls to entice customers and to trump an online-shopping experience. At the Grandview Shopping Mall, where Pizza is caged, there are allegedly thousands of animals belonging to some 500 species, including an arctic fox, walruses, and beluga whales, all kept in similarly deficient conditions.
Humane Society International this week released footage showing the sad conditions that Pizza lives in, even as 50 Chinese animal welfare organizations wrote a letter to Governor Zhu Xiaodan of Guangzhou, China, to demand that Pizza, who has been dubbed the world’s “saddest polar bear,” be rehomed. In the open letter, the animal groups urged the governor to take action to close the exhibits and find happier homes for all the animals. They also appealed to the nation’s industrial and commercial sectors to help stop this cruel trend of displaying animals at malls.
HSI, Care2, Born Free Foundation, and the Hong-Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation have also collected one million signatures on a petition asking that Pizza and the other animals at the Grandview Mall be rehomed.
The footage of Pizza was obtained in September by an investigator hired by HSI who visited the mall and took photos and video of the animals trapped there. The footage shows disturbing evidence that Pizza is exhibiting the repetitive behavior typical of animals struggling to cope with traumatic, stressful situations. According to Professor Alistair MacMillan, who worked with HSI on this case, these behaviors — including head swaying and repetitive pacing — are evidence of frustration and mental decline.
Polar bears are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity — their welfare needs are very challenging to meet in captive situations. Our experts believe Pizza’s welfare is at serious risk and that unless he is rehomed somewhere that is more suited to meet his welfare needs, he will slip further and further into mental decline and depression.
In September, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in the United Kingdom offered Pizza a home in its 10-acre enclosure, but Chinese authorities refused the offer, stating the bear will not leave China. In fact, China has made “foreign interference” an excuse for its lack of action, and so it is now strategically important that Chinese animal groups take the lead on this issue. This week, at a press conference in Beijing, our Chinese partner groups, VShine and Capital Animal Welfare Association, made it clear that they are ready and able to negotiate for the animals’ release. There is no recourse under the law because China currently has no animal protection laws to stop animals like these being subjected to this kind of deprivation.
The Grandview Mall has tried to make the case that the animals in its exhibit are part of a legitimate educational aquarium experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The only lesson that visitors are learning is that human beings are in fact capable of delirious cruelty, with animals forced to endure a monotonous existence in entirely unsuitable environments. Pizza is a sentient, emotionally complex being. He doesn’t exist for the amusement of shoppers.