10 years of humiliation
Kevin Mckenna hits out over deal for pandas in Edinburgh Zoo
ATAWDRY episode in Scotland’s recent history, shielded by the great human dramas that have unfolded around it, is dragging to a close. In December we will return Edinburgh Zoo’s two giant pandas to their homeland in China after a decadelong rental arrangement. This has not been one of Scotland’s finest moments.
In those ten years we have permitted these two magnificent and shy beasts to be violated repeatedly in the hope that they might produce a cute and cuddly cub for the titillation of the paying public. The female, Tian Tian, has suffered the greatest abuse. Last week it was revealed that an eighth attempt at inseminating her artificially had failed. Her former mate, Yang Guang, contracted testicular cancer during his Edinburgh captivity amidst concerns by animal rights groups that the persistent and intrusive attempts at producing a baby panda were a contributory factor.
Executives at Edinburgh Zoo have clearly been influenced by the propaganda style of the Chinese Government when applying make-up to something shady. Announcing that the latest attempt to impregnate Tian Tian had failed, David Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), attempted to spin something positive. “Giant panda breeding is an amazingly complex, unpredictable process and every cycle has made it possible to carry out scientific research which has benefited both Tian Tian and international efforts to protect the species over the past decade.”
Artificial attempts at breeding puts animals as large as these two creatures at significant risk. It involves giving them huge doses of anaesthesia in intrusive procedures. In the case of Tian Tian and Yang Guang it involved bringing in experts from further afield. We have subjected these two beasts to this ritual abuse for ten years for the sole purpose of producing a marketing tool. It’s obscene behaviour.
When they arrived in Scotland in 2011, Alex Salmond, then the First Minister, christened them Sunshine and Sweetie and joked that we now had more Giant Pandas than Tory MPS. It was the start of a macabre and expensive circus.
The initial rental agreement was around £800,000 a year. To facilitate the need to turn these animals into
national celebrities, the Scottish Government stepped in with another £30-40k for the arrival ceremony and adverts in local newspapers. An extra £2.5million was given to the zoo to build a new panda enclosure.
John Robbins, chief executive of Animal Concern, told me: “I’m glad this circus in a zoo is coming to an end, but I’m concerned about what will happen to the political prisoner pandas if they are sent back to China. Old non-breeding pandas are expensive to keep and have little financial value. As Tian Tian and Yang Guang failed to produce a little Ching Ching to make the tills ring ring they might end up on the dissection table.
“No matter how much of a rosy picture the zoo try to paint they cannot camouflage the fact that this last ten years has been a very expensive failure. Including the
£8m or so it cost to lease the animals from the Chinese Government, I reckon this exercise has cost
the zoo in the region of £20m.”
Within a few years, these gentle creatures’ celebrity status began to wane as the initial, “natural” attempts at mating failed. In recent years they have been forgotten, the human gawpers seeking their cuddly doses of sentiment elsewhere.
A few years ago, following my criticism of their captivity, I was allowed a supervised visit to the Giant Panda enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. My guides’ professional sincerity and obvious affection for Tian Tian and Gang Luang were beyond reproach. They also seemed proud of how large and appropriately designed the facility was. Yet, I could only imagine the misery of two gorgeous beasts, accustomed to the rolling bamboo forests of their homeland, padding around a miniature, glass-encased facsimile of it. I felt shamed by this exercise.
When the pandas arrived, the RZSS reached for what has since become a well-thumbed narrative.
The project, they said, was part of an international breeding programme aimed at conservation. Thankfully, the Giant Panda is now off the list of endangered species. This though, was largely due to anti-poaching measures along with increased protection of their natural habitats.
Other questions arise from Scotland’s “stewardship” of these creatures. Did the RZSS possess the licence to carry out what they now admit is research on the pandas? If you experiment on an animal you’re required under the terms of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act to seek one.
They have been used as political fodder to paint a benevolent smile on the face of a repressive regime in China. Edinburgh Zoo should ask the Beijing authorities what fate awaits Tian Tian and Yang Guang if they are sent back. If they are to be killed then the zoo should refuse to return them and give them sanctuary without any further attempts at breeding. Perhaps the Scottish Government could give the pandas political asylum?
A measure of how we will be judged for our allotted time on this earth will be applied to our treatment of the creatures with whom we shared its resources. Some explanation will be required on our treatment of these two beautiful animals. More generally, why do we persist in the Victorian practice of caging the planet’s creatures so humans can humiliate them?
If the Scottish Greens want to make themselves useful in Government they could start by getting some answers to these questions. They could also initiate a process of forcing Scotland’s zoos to transition fully into non-breeding sanctuaries for animals rescued from circuses, laboratories and the insidious pet trade. In this way zoos could justify their charitable status. Instead of causing suffering, they would be alleviating it.
A measure of how we are judged for our time on earth will be applied to our treatment of creatures with whom we shared resources