In China, just as in the United States, people see zoos as breeding grounds for animals, not corruption. So it was with great mirth that Beijing papers announced the investigation of Xiao Shaoxiang, a former deputy director of the Beijing Zoo, suspected of embezzling $2.26 million.
The story, which broke on July 29, allowed for a wide variety of animal puns — especially because the most quoted line from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is an exhortation to go after both flies (low-ranking officials) and tigers (their bosses). "Animals are in the cage, whereas the deputy director’s power is uncaged," wrote one blogger in a headline that, with some massaging, could conceivably appear on an American cable news show. Meanwhile, on the Chinese Internet, some people joked about the ridiculousness of the crime: "I think Disney could use this to make a movie," the Beijing News quoted one Internet user as saying. "The zoo head is embezzling food from the animals, and a tiger, a small bear, and a monkey plan to escape." (Xiao is accused of pocketing kickbacks related to zoo construction, not stealing food from the animals.)
Chinese zoos have a spotty history — of animal mistreatment, of poor funding, and, in one infamous case in the central Chinese city of Louhe, of claiming a hairy dog was an African lion. But arguably the most compelling Chinese zoo scandal occurred in the Beijing Zoo in May 2010, when Chinese media discovered that Bin Feng Tang, a restaurant affiliated with the zoo, was serving exotic animal dishes — including hippopotamus toes and alligator fried in hot sauce — from a secret menu.
The journalist who broke that story, Lan Yiyun of Legal Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, didn’t appear surprised about the zoo restaurant. In fact, Lan’s story read as much like a restaurant review as an exposé. Lan listed the prices, which ranged from around $15 for antelope soup to roughly $88 for kangaroo eggs and roughly $118 for crocodile. Lan also recommended the best way to enjoy the restaurant: Book two days in advance so the kitchen has enough time to prepare your order and visit with a group of six to 14 people — small enough so that everyone can fit at one table, but large enough so people can select a wide variety of food.
The news gave the restaurant a rush of business, according to a Liaoning TV station report. In an interview with Lan, the restaurant manager said that everything he was doing was legal, that he wasn’t serving protected animals, and that the food served came from certified animal farms.
Alas for the restaurant’s owners, the story caused a public outcry from Chinese whose views on zoos and animals hew closer to the international norm. "It is utterly inappropriate for a zoo to sell such items," Ge Rui of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an organization dedicated to saving animals, told the Guardian. "One of the zoo’s missions is to foster love of animals and a desire to protect them. But by selling the meat of caged beasts, this zoo stimulates consumption and increases pressure on the animals in the wild. It is socially irresponsible."
Shortly after the media storm, the restaurant removed the exotic animals from the menu. A few years ago, I called and asked about the secret menu. "Oh, we don’t have that anymore," the woman said sadly. "I’m sorry." She still recommended I visit the restaurant, though. If memory serves, she also offered to "find me some special turtle," an offer I politely declined.
The zoo itself also seemed to encourage the restaurant’s broader menu offerings. "In the past, notices on each of the zoo’s animal cages included information about which parts were the tastiest and most useful according to traditional Chinese medicine," according to a May 2010 article in the Guardian. "Those details have now been omitted."
Instances like these, however, are a good reminder that Chinese journalists — like their American counterparts — can have a finely developed sense of irony: The Legal Daily journalist reported that the restaurant’s patrons dubbed it "the most awesome restaurant in Beijing." The slang word they used for awesome is niu, which literally means cow.