Chinese Malls Are Filled With Sad Animals

As cities spread, so do depressing mall zoos

Chinese Mall
Mall rats aren't the only animals to be found in China's gigantic shopping centers. Thomas Galvez (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Want to see something on a grand scale? Don’t head into nature—head to a Chinese mall. The country’s shopping obsession has taken the indoor shopping center concept to a new level, packing each mall with amenities and entertainment designed to lure in customers. But while the thought of a shopping spree might sound fun, the mall is anything but enjoyable for some of its residents: exotic animals. As Echo Huang Yinyin writes for Quartz, thousands of wild animals call Chinese malls home, living in a state of captivity for the sake of selfies.

Yinyin tracks the fate of animals like Pizza, a three-year-old polar bear held in captivity in The Grandview mall in Guangzhou. Pizza is stuffed into Grandview Mall Ocean World, an aquarium and zoo that features everything from Arctic wolves and foxes to walruses, beluga whales and other species. The animals’ keepers have been accused of everything from killing animals in transit to storing animals in filthy, too-small tanks. Pizza the polar bear gained international fame when he became the subject of a petition to release him from his isolated conditions. Outside experts claim that Pizza’s behavior—pacing, listlessness and staring—while mall-goers banged on its glass enclosure are signs of stress that indicate its enclosure is inappropriate.

So why are there animals in Chinese malls to begin with? It’s complicated. As China rapidly urbanizes, explains Adam Minter for Bloomberg View, its urban planners have made malls a central part of their city designs. Minter writes that 44 percent of the world’s newly constructed malls in 2014 were in China.

But even though the country is rapidly industrializing, planning has outpaced actual economic growth. This has led to empty cities (and malls) built for urban populations that don’t yet exist—a huge outlay of funds that can’t be recouped until the shoppers pour in. In Shanghai, for example, a 70-acre mall designed to look like the Pentagon stands nearly empty, and a Dongguan mall twice the size of the gargantuan Mall of America has been nearly abandoned. Underperforming malls have added to a corporate debt problem in the country, write Pete Sweeney and Jessica Macy Yu for Reuters, even as consumption grows nationwide.

Desperate to bring in shoppers, Chinese malls have gotten creative. As The Wall Street Journal’s Esther Fung reports, landlords are constructing everything from five-story-tall slides to art installations to draw in customers. High-tech features like robots, touch screens and immersive apps are being tested, and “smart malls” that incorporate digital, personalized technology are becoming the norm. In recent years, Chinese malls have tried everything from lavish Christmas villages to daycares for miserable men. Animal enclosures are just part of the draw.

But at what price? As Yinyin writes, China doesn’t have animal welfare laws, only conventions that suggest, but don’t require, standards of animal care. Despite a growing animal welfare movement in the country, animal abuse and neglect is common. Chinese consumers have a growing appetite for ocean theme parks that, though ostensibly intended to raise awareness of nature and science, can exploit the animals they house.

But as Kristin Hugo writes for National Geographic, loudly criticizing China for its treatment of animals can do more harm than good. This was exemplified by the reaction of The Grandview to treatment of Pizza and its other animals—instead of admitting that its animals need more sensitive treatment, the mall doubled down, denying the accusations and turning down offers to export the bear to a British zoo. Ultimately, the best way to help animals at Chinese malls lies with mall-goers themselves. The more people who refuse to take a selfie with Pizza and the bear’s fellow captives, the sooner the practice of turning splendid malls into depressing zoos will end.