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Chinese mall becomes ‘prison’ for bears, belugas, wolves

A man takes a picture of a bear in Guangzhou Mall Ocean World in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 1. (Simon Denyer/The Washington Post)

A Chinese shopping mall has become a “prison” for a variety of marine and polar animals.

Two white bears — billed as polar bears but more likely polar bear–brown bear hybrids — five walrus calves, six young beluga whales and two Arctic wolves are among the animals on display in the Grandview Mall Ocean World in the southern city of Guangzhou.

China’s booming ocean parks spell misery for bears, belugas, dolphins

Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based charity, calls the conditions in the mall “horrifying” and describes it as a “prison for animals.” In China, an article complaining about belugas swimming in dirty water, a whale shark being confined to a small tank and a grouper dying went viral on social media and provoked outrage.

”The owner of Grandview Mall Ocean World should be kept in a fishbowl for his whole life,” one person wrote on the Sina Weibo microblogging site.

“It is indoors. Exposing such adorable animals to the noise and the glare for a long time might not be good for them,” wrote another.

On a recent visit, one bear paced back and forth in a small enclosure, displaying behavior that experts say reflects stress and possible psychological problems. Wolves lay listlessly in a small room, while walrus calves and belugas swam back and forth in confined spaces.

“Taking animals from their natural environments can never be defended, but when they’re re-homed in conditions like we’re seeing at the Grandview Aquarium it’s the worst possible situation,” wrote Animal Asia’s Animal Welfare Director Dave Neale in a blog post.

“While those behind this may claim this as education, it’s clear the motivation here is bottom line profit. As long as businesses are allowed to use animals in this manner, wealth will always be put ahead of welfare.”

On a recent visit, WorldViews overheard some visitors complaining about the “skinny” and “pathetic”–looking animals, although others seemed content to take photographs and move on. Nevertheless, Neale took some encouragement from the negative reaction to the mall on social media.

“What is clear is that a significant section of Chinese society will not accept this, and the negativity surrounding the Grandview Aquarium is the only thing that will challenge developments like this," he said.

Grandview Mall Ocean World declined requests for comment, but manager Li Chengtang was quoted in local media as saying the aquarium provides enough space for animals to live and play, and that professionals were monitoring the animals' health.

China's booming ocean theme park industry leaves animals behind (Video: Xu Jing/The Washington Post)

Responding to activists' criticisms about the aquarium training sea lions to perform, Li told local media it aims to offer an experience of the "polar ocean world" as well as scientific knowledge. “Aquaria can help to educate the public,” he was quoted as saying.

The Guangzhou Ocean and Fishery Bureau has opened an investigation into the aquarium and found that some animals died or were hurt when being moved into the aquarium, Guangzhou Daily reported.

The aquarium is one of 39 ocean theme parks in China, a booming industry that is capturing many marine mammals from the wild to stock its tanks, including hundreds of bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales.

There are concerns that many animals in the Chinese ocean park industry are being caught in ways that cause stress and fear and disrupt social groups — and are then kept in inadequate conditions that are likely to cause suffering.

China’s booming ocean parks spell misery for bears, belugas, dolphins