What’s the purpose of a zoo today? Wikipedia tells us “A zoo (short for zoological garden; also called an animal park or menagerie) is a facility in which animals are kept within enclosures for public exhibition and often bred for conservation purposes.” Yet with the recent rise in awareness toward ecology and protection, the purpose of a zoo expands from simply showing and breeding to protecting and educating. This summer, a trip to Hongshan Zoo in Nanjing gave me a precious experience of what zoos can tell us.

Hongshan Forest Zoo in Nanjing is well known for its advanced standard of exhibiting animals in China. While it’s common to see animal performance in other zoos, Hongshan Forest Zoo was the first to abolish animal circus shows in 2011 and advocates maintaining the natural behavior of animals in captivity. Now, Hongshan is leading the zoos in China in exhibiting animals’ natural behavior, educating the public about wildlife, promoting awareness of nature protection, and engaging in wildlife rescue, release, and rehabilitation. 

The poster of the local zone, photo by @九个妖怪唱山歌 on Sina Weibo

With the advantage of natural forests and hills, Hongshan combined its animal exhibition area with the natural environment. The local zone of Hongshan offers a very natural feeling as if the animals were living in the fields of southern China. The wilderness of plains and small hills around the Yangtze River is the natural habitat of these animals, but due to the city’s development and the exploding population, the lives of these animals are threatened. The local zone not only spreads the idea of “animal friends in our city” but also rescues wild animals with injury or disease. Hongshan’s wolf and tiger zones are located on small hills with streams and waterfalls, providing large and peaceful spaces for these predators to walk around.

The Wolf Valley of Hongshan, photo by @一万老树 on Sina Weibo

When you explore the zoo, you will find that animals are all kept in fully enclosed areas, and every corner of the zoo has labels telling tourists not to feed the animals. Until today, many zoos in our country still allow or even advocate feeding animals, which only benefits the zoo, not the animals, for they may easily get diseases or even die from food given by tourists. Aside from telling the public not to feed, Hongshan invites enthusiastic volunteers to paint vivid advertisement boards about the natural habitat and habits of animals. At Gaoligong District, you can not only see red pandas and muntjac but can also find an illustration of their hometown: the high mountains and river valleys of Mount Gaoligong.

The animals at Hongshan are well cared for and treated with respect. Each animal has a name and “personality” shown to the tourists. With the help of the humorous staff at the zoo, we learn that some animals are “clever and vivid,” some “eat too much,” and others “like staying with people.” At the Bear Zone, volunteers paint the portraits of different bears to help tourists distinguish them. 

(Photo by Jingyi Ma)

Photo by @南京红山动物园志愿者 on Sina Weibo

Through the zoo’s love for nature from the bottom of their heart, the people from Hongshan Forest Zoo managed to create a window for these animals to be seen in a way that is happy for them and for tourists. When I walked out of Hongshan Forest Zoo, my real feelings were that I only had a trip into the wilderness and took away knowledge, love, and respect for animals and mother nature. What’s important is that we are just the children of mother nature and not superior to any other creature. This magnificent zoo tells us that we need to sing with all the voices of the mountains, from now to the endless future.