Zoo story not so grand

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Zoo story not so grand

The floor of the mandrill cage is a mixture of aging dung and crackers thrown through the bars by children. The giraffes, seeking nourishment, lick the concrete walls of their house. A sea lion swims in a pool along with floating leftover food, trash and feces.

Welcome to Seoul Grand Park's zoo.

Here, animals must endure, likely not so happily, Korea's temperature extremes. Elephants deal with frost in the winter and polar bears swelter under the scorching sun in the summer -- they have heated or cooled enclosures, but often, during the zoo's open hours, they aren't allowed in them.

Zookeepers at Grand Park acknowledge that the facilities are substandard, but say they are helping to preserve the animals. But some of the zoo's facilities are so dilapilated no beast on earth should be banished to them.

In January, a nonprofit civic group published an in-depth report on the deplorable state of the capital's main zoo. The Korean Federation for Environmental Movement's report, compiled after 10 months of research, called the place "The Mournful Zoo."

"The Primate Hall is perhaps in the worst state," says Ma Yong-un of the environmental group that drew up the report. Indeed, nine months after the startling report was issued, the zoo's indoor hall continues to be filthy, with paint peeling off the walls. The concrete floors of the hall are blanketed with feces, decomposed and fresh. Orangutans and gorillas sit in silence, looking forlorn and misplaced.

Lee Gil-woong, a zookeeper who has worked at the facility for 38 years, says, "We used to put a tree trunk and grassy tufts in their cages to create natural surroundings, but because they're in such a small space, these animals smash them up."

According to Mr. Lee, the primates also find it difficult to breed in the much too small and far too squalid conditions. "It's just too stressful on these animals."

One recent day, a loud, pounding noise erupts from a gorilla's glass cage. A few boys are teasing the beast, and it is pounding back in anger. "He is so upset, and he vents it on the people outside," Mr. Lee says. "Imagine how stifling it must be in there."

When the boys leave, Mr. Lee enters the cage of Bobae, a 4-year old lowland Africa gorilla, and Bobae clings to the man, kissing him repeatedly on his head and his mouth. "I've cared for her since her birth, so she sees me as her mother," Mr. Lee says. Mr. Lee seems like the only creature the primates can trust.

Suddenly, a small rat enters a cage where a chimpanzee is sitting. A few people outside shriek, but Mr. Lee reassures them. "It's nothing," he says. "These animals have a symbiotic relationship. It's a natural part of wildlife."

Mr. Ma says, "Just take a look at the state of the cages. It doesn't take an expert to realize this is unacceptable. The facilities of the Primate Hall are far worse than any I've seen in Europe."

Mr. Lee shrugs. He seems resigned to the status quo. "Yes, we have to upgrade our facilities, but what can you do? We don't have the resources. We have to adjust to the realities of our budget."

Some of the 15 tigers at the zoo don't have it so bad. Four of them are in the predatory animal section, where they have room to roam. They are lucky. The other 11 are out back in a small cell. And their feline cousins, the pumas, leopards, and panthers, are caged in cramped cells. The four fortunate tigers have a large grazing area furnished with artificial rocks. A wide moat in front separates the keep from the visitors. Another zookeeper, Eom Gi-yong, 58, says that a pair of tiger cubs were born just over three months ago. "It's quite a rare event to have tiger cubs born in captivity." The keeper explains that most carnivores kept in captivity fail to reach their natural life spans because of the incessant stress that comes from being caged and watched and teased.

"Visitors," Mr. Eom says, "throw everything at the animals except mobile phones."

Tigers in the wild are known to roam around a radius of 500 kilometers. But the 11 tigers kept in a cage at Grand Park lie languid, their innate ferocity "diminished by 60 percent," says Mr. Eom. "They sometimes die of illnesses that can be triggered by depression. They're just like humans."

Besides the tigers, a few other animals aren't squeezed into cages, such as large animals like the elephants and rhinoceroses. The rest of the creatures, those in cages, appear to suffer the most. The zookeepers acknowledge that conditions are bad, which is indicated by low breeding rates. But they insist they are doing their best.

"Although there are some problems with the zoo, it's not that horrendous," Mr. Eom says. "Besides, there's nothing much we can do."

According to the civic group's report, the pools at the zoo's Marine Hall, home of sea lions, harbor seals and polar bears, are unsanitary. The polar bear's white fur is practically green due to the lichen in his pool. A pair of harbor seals are quarantined in a separate pool because of an eye disease. "Because they don't have enough resources to spend on sea water, the pool of the sea lions uses underground water," the report said.

The director of the zoo, Kim Gi-geun, says he was fully aware of the poor facilites of the zoo before the damning report appeared.

"But in truth, change does not happen dramatically. It takes time to implement improvements," he says. Mr. Kim claims the report was exaggerated to some extent, and some of the animals that were said to be in ill health are actually better now. Regarding the concrete floors and "prison life" of the caged animals depicted in the report, Mr. Kim says, "We are making efforts to rectify the situation. It won't happen overnight, but we are working on it."

A recent visitor to the zoo, Park Soo-yeon, left saddened by the state of the animals. "The animals looked vacant and lifeless," she says. "It's a big zoo, but I felt deep remorse when I looked around."

While most visitors lament the state of Grand Park zoo, not all of them do. Jang Jin-hee, 28, says, "The facilities are O.K. I don't think the conditions are that bad. I mean, the park is very spacious, so it feels invigorating to be there."

The zoo does have plans to make improvements. It is planning to establish a special zone, in the area behind its South American Hall, that would be set aside as a preserve for indigenous animals such as half-moon bears, tigers from Baekdu Mountain, and wildcats. Plans are currently under way for this safari-like park; if everything runs smoothly, it will open in late 2004.

Mr. Kim, the zoo director, says that the park also plans to create a special breeding and habitation ground, which would be modeled after the animals' natural environments.

"But that's a long-term, 10-year plan," he says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ma and his civic group have yet to conduct any follow-up studies to check the state of the zoo. Mr. Ma says he understands the challenges the zoo faces. "One of the key problems that the zoo has is that it cannot sustain itself just by ticket sales. The zoo relies on city funding for more than half of its budget, which is sparse to begin with."

by Choi Jie-ho

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