BEIJING — In a shopping mall in southern China, a polar bear named Pizza paces past murals of icebergs in his glass enclosure. He shakes his shaggy head under artificial lights. He crouches by an air vent to sniff the outside world.
All are distress behaviors, say Chinese animal welfare advocates, who on Tuesday called on Zhu Xiaodan, the governor of Guangdong province, where Pizza lives in an aquarium at the Grandview Mall in Guangzhou, to move the bear to a more appropriate environment. Pizza has become known as “the world’s saddest polar bear,” the advocates, from 48 organizations, wrote in an open letter to Zhu.
They added that they hoped “the Guangdong government would close Grandview Polar Sea World!”
Hundreds of animals are housed in small enclosures over several floors of the mall, including arctic wolves and beluga whales. They share the retail emporium with an electronic games arcade for children, a 3-D movie theater, a supermarket and leading domestic and international clothing brands. Escalators in an atrium run past signs advertising Swarovski and Estée Lauder products, noodle restaurants and coffee shops.
The activists say Pizza’s plight is part of a disturbing trend in China: exhibiting wild animals in shopping malls to attract customers as more people turn to often cheaper and more convenient e-commerce.
At a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday, representatives of four of the animal welfare groups showed reporters photographs of an elephant used to sell mobile telephones outside a mall on the outskirts of Beijing and sea lions offered for interactions with shoppers who spend more than 500 renminbi (about $75) at another mall in Beijing. A “mall zoo” similar to Grandview is under consideration in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province, they said.
“Animals deserve so much better than being enclosed in a glass box, with very little in it, to attract shoppers,” said Hu Chunmei of the Endangered Species Fund. “It shows a complete lack of regard for their welfare.”
In Beijing, squirrels, parrots, llamas and goats, as well as domestic animals such as cats and dogs, are sometimes displayed in cages or glass enclosures in shopping malls. At lunchtime, the crowds massed around them can be several people deep.
Asked to comment this week, the Grandview Mall aquarium defended itself against the criticism, which has spread around the world. Recently, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in England offered to take in Pizza — an offer indignantly declined by the aquarium.
“Pizza is very healthy,” it said in an emailed statement, adding that the aquarium was engaged in scientific education and research and in the protection of biodiversity. “You can’t entirely separate animal welfare from these social benefits.”
The aquarium is no different from other facilities in China or the world, the statement said. It has 130 specialists caring for its hundreds of animals, it said. News reports that Pizza is suffering in inadequate conditions are distorted and have been referred to the authorities, it said, in a thinly veiled warning of possible legal action.
Wild animals like polar bears require a large natural habitat to maintain their physical and mental health, said Wendy Higgins, a spokeswoman for Humane Society International.
“Their environment is so unique. They’re such wide-ranging animals, and they start to decline quite rapidly in captivity,” Higgins said in a telephone interview.
“Pizza spends every single day on his own with nowhere to hide, just subjected to people banging on the glass and taking photographs,” she said.
Qin Xiaona, the director of the Capital Animal Welfare Association, said that criticism by the mall management, which has accused the activists of doing foreigners’ bidding, was an insult to China’s people and culture.
“They say, ‘You are using a Western point of view’ in order to oppose us,” Qin said. “But we can’t forget that we have a tradition in China of ‘respecting heaven, caring for animals’” — or jingtian wenwu.
“Because of economic competition, we’ve regressed,” leading to the widespread abuse of animals — and people — in recent decades, she said. “We want to revive our tradition.”
Yu Hongmei of VShine, an organization in Dalian, agreed on the impulse behind the campaign to help the animals at Grandview Mall: “It’s not foreign. It’s our tradition, too.”
China has not had an animal welfare law since the 1930s, under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, who was defeated by the Communists in 1949.
A Wildlife Protection Law came into force in 1989 and was updated in July, but it allows the capture and breeding of wild animals for commercial purposes and permits the use of wild animals for public displays and performances. A draft law on animal cruelty that would extend protection to pets, farm livestock and laboratory animals was proposed in 2009 but has yet to be adopted. Practices such as a dog meat festival in Yulin continue to attract headlines.
Calls to the Guangzhou provincial government and the Guangzhou Industrial and Commercial Bureau for comment on Tuesday went unanswered.
Karoline Kan contributed research.