Taipei Zoo in black and white



National Taiwan’s University’s meticulously planned “Digital Insect World” exhibition is currently being shown in Taipei Zoo and has received an enthusiastic response from the public, fascinating many people with its secrets of the natural world. Do you know that in 1915 during Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period Taipei had a zoo? What changes in ecological conservation concepts in Taiwan are illustrated by post 1945 news films? Let’s go to the Chinese Taipei Film Archives to hear this interesting story.

In 1915 Taiwan had been government by the Japanese colonialists for 20 years. The suppression of the Xilaian Incident signaled the end of large scale Han resistance against the Japanese and many people living under the rising sun flag decided to compromise with the “new” system” and live a peaceful life. Freed from the need to spend large amounts of money on maintaining order the Japanese began to develop Taiwan. Taipei Zoo, at Yuanshan, was opened against this background.

The good times didn’t last long and towards the end of the Pacific War in 1944 Japan suffered defeat after defeat. In this time when the country’s interests always came first zoos in Japan and in its colonies were regarded as being a burden because of the large amount of food the animals needed so the decision was made to euthanize some of the animals. Taipei Zoo was no exception. Even though children wrote in pleading “Don’t kill the animals” the bears and lions and other animals needing a large amount of meat were either electrocuted or shot.
Luckily, when Taipei was heavily bombed on may 3, 1954 the zoo buildings avoided serious damage, leaving a solid foundation behind for post-war development. The animals we see in Muzha Zoo today live in pens designed to simulate the natural environment (of course it can’t recreate it 100% so we sometimes see the animals behaving in a way that shows they are unsettled. While carrying out observation for a physical anthropology report I once wrote, I was startled when a chimpanzee suddenly pounded on the glass of his pen, showing that sometimes animals don’t like to have an audience.) However, today’s zoos are the products of changes in conservation concepts over a long period of time. Some of the animals in Yuanshan Zoo after 1945 had to “sing for their supper”. 

In this film titled “Animal Performance” from 1954, we see the zoo full of children watching animals perform on “Children’s Day.” There are monkeys pulling carts and on stilts, performing plays and a poor goat rolling around in a steel tub, falling out onto its stomach. It is certain that the zoo would be heavily criticized for “mistreating animals!” by animal lovers if this kind of performance was put on today, however, from the expressions on the faces of the children at the front, hands clutching the metal railings and eyes fixed on the animals, we can feel the innocent joy they felt even after more than 50 year.

In another film with the same title from 1955 lions perform. At the sight of lions and monkeys jumping through hoops animal lovers would probably say “This is a zoo not a circus!”This is history, whether we like it or not, these things actually happened in Taiwan. When the film shows Lin Wang and Malan the Asian elephant “husband and wife” even through the PC screen we can transcend time and space and feel their affection for each other.
These films shows the changes in animal conservation concepts in Taiwan. Of course, these circus animal performances are perhaps not acceptable to people today but they have to be accepted as part of Taiwan’s past. Maybe, while criticizing behavior that doesn’t match current conservation or animal welfare trends, we can pay our respects to the animals that had to endure arduous training and behave in unnatural ways by getting involved in conservation and animal welfare work today. This can, perhaps, be a positive effect of the history and existence of zoos.


Teldap e-newsletter/ Chen Tai-ying
Text and films are provided by TELDAP e-Newsletter (April, 2010)