The international campaign to free what is dubbed the world’s saddest polar bear, Pizza, is turning a new chapter.
Some 50 animal welfare groups across China have joined forces to call on local authorities to relocate the creature, which has been kept in captivity since January at a shopping mall in Guangzhou, southern Guangdong province.
The animal groups are slated to present their petition letter to Zhu Xiaodan, Governor of Guangdong province, early next week, urging local authorities to intervene as Pizza is said to have showed visible signs of mental decline.
But the aquarium’s curator has refused to back down, insisting the accusations from animal groups at home and abroad are groundless.
The latest petition by local activists argues that Pizza, along with many other animals, such as arctic foxes and beluga whales, are living in a limited space and completely synthetic condition.
Poor living conditions
The animals have also fallen victim to annoyances such as people tapping on their windows and the blinding flash of cameras or selfies by visitors to Grandview Aquarium, which is located inside the shopping center.
“Because [such recreational facilities including Grandview] aren’t professional zoos, they often provide very poor living conditions [for animals in captivity]. Plus, they are often located in places where there are intense streams of visitors. So, from the aspect of animal welfare, that imposes a grave negative impact on the animals,” said Qin Xiaona, founder of Beijing-based Capital Animal Welfare Association (CAWA).
Qin’s association and the Dalian-based Vshine Animal Protection Association took the lead in the local petition, originally initiated by the London-based Humane Society International (HSI)-- one of many international animal groups that are demanding freedom for the arctic bear and calling on the Chinese public not to visit the aquarium or shut it down.
They hope to enter negotiations with Grandview to find new homes for Pizza and many of the other animals, whose needs they say are extremely difficult to meet in a shopping mall environment.
“As animal rights groups, we keep an eye on animal welfare and environmental protection. We hope that no wildlife animals leave their natural habitat or are kept in facilities such as aquariums or zoos, which are inappropriate for their survival. Such commercial activities of using animals in entertainment should be completely banned,” Qin added.
Back in March, the animal welfare group Animals Asia posted a video showing a dispirited Pizza lying-down and exhibiting possible signs of distress, including teary eyes and twitching mouth. Viewers worldwide were heartbroken.
Since then, an online petition initiated by Animal Asia has garnered more than 680,000 signatures in support of the group’s call to free Pizza and close the aquarium.
Last month, the UK’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park offered to house Pizza in its specially-designed polar bear habitat – an enclosure that includes 10 acres of land and two lakes for its community of polar bears.
Pressure groups called the offer an opportunity for Grandview to right its wrong.
But the aquarium has flatly rejected the offer.
In spite of the bad publicity, Pizza remains on display in an enclosure of less than 66 spare meters.
In a written reply to VOA, Grandview argues that Pizza is an artificially-bred polar bear, which left its mother at the age of 2 and has long lost its ability to brave in the wild.
“It is only objective to look at both animal welfare and their social function… we also shoulder social responsibilities to popularize science and promote biodiversity,” the curator wrote in an email reply in response to the Free Pizza campaign.
Grandview insisted it has put the health of Pizza and other captive animals on top priority with a team of 130 professionals tending to the animals’ daily needs and performing regular physical checkups.
“Our star animal Pizza has been healthy as all indicators from his recent physical exam fall with the normal range,” the statement added.
On top of nutritious and well-balanced diets, the aquarium has also stepped up efforts to create mentally- and physically-enriching activities, such as hiding food in the snow or frozen ice bricks so as to stimulate natural behaviors in Pizza, according to a promo video provided by Grandview.
In its own defense, Grandview said it is in polar bears’ natural behaviors that they spend “66 percent of their time in an idle status, another 29 percent in walking or swimming and eating in the remaining time.”
The aquarium added that its operation is fully legal after having secured a permit from the country’s ministry of agriculture.
But pressure groups remain convinced Grandview falls short of facilitating a zoo setting that is close to polar bear’s natural habitat.
And they say it’s a worrying sign that Pizza has exhibited classic signs of mental decline, such as head-swaying or repetitive movements.
“Once you’ve got an animal displaying those kinds of very typical behaviors, the clock is ticking really,” said Wendy Higgins of HSI.
“My warning to the mall would be that, at some point, in the near future, they are going to have a really obviously visibly mentally-disturbed polar bear on their hands. It would be embarrassing for them to have him on display,” she added.
Higgins said that she personally finds it repelling to put wild animals on display to stimulate sales of iPhones or sneakers.