I've just returned home from Cambodia on one of many visits that I pay to zoos and animal related events across Asia. I document the cruelty and perform an audit of the animals held, and conditions they are kept in. Teuk Chhou Zoo (TCZ) and Prey Veng Zoo (PVZ) are two of the worst I have seen. Luckily, the pressure is on to close them thanks to Zoowatch, a project by EARS Asia and supported by more than 20 charities.
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Dubbed variously 'the zoos of death' and the 'zoos of horrors' and so on by newspapers and charities in the past, many NGOs such as Footprints, Wildlife Alliance and EARS Asia have supported TCZ and PVZ in the past. Trying desperately to stop the animals from starving and improve their welfare, no charities are left that can help. They have all been forced to pull out due to disagreements with the owner, who is a military general and government official.
These were not minor agreements, but over the welfare of the animals. No matter how much support was given, they were still starved with no water, some disappearing or dying every year. The owner has plead poverty in the newspapers before, saying he doesn't have enough money to feed them. When asked to respond to the deaths at the zoos and the NGOs pulling out, the owner shrugged it off "if they still die because of no food, I will eat them. There is no problem".
The most recent charity forced to pull out from the zoo were EARS, who cared for Kiri and Seila, two elephants who were sick and starved before EARS provided food and medical care for many years. Suddenly, in 2015, the owner announced he was trading them to a Japanese zoo, in return to zebras, white tigers and gorillas. After months of trying, EARS had no choice but to publicly campaign to stop the trade, stop endangered animals from being brought from Japan to the zoo of death.
They succeeded, and were banned from entering the zoos ever again.
I should explain, these are not your regular bad zoos. The animals are starved of course, no food and no water except for the big cats, the lions, tigers, leopards. And also as standard, the cages are filled with garbage and there is no shelter for most of them from the sun or rain. So aside from an owner who says he will eat his animals after they starve to death, what makes these zoos something else?
Those big cats I mentioned are the biggest source of pride for the owner and so are relatively well fed, but how can that be? Here's a hint: some of the cages are funded by Shin Nippon Biomedical Research Laboratories, who experiment on monkeys. I have seen dissected monkey corpses partially eaten in the big cat enclosures. I can think of three possibilities: monkeys are being caught from the wild for food (this would be illegal), some zoo animals are fed to other zoo animals (this would be insane), or ex-laboratory testing monkeys are being cut up and fed to the big cats. That reads like something out of a horror film. As I say, they are not your regular bad zoos.
There is another example that I still can't quite believe. I was surprised to find some sort of pet terrier dog in one of the cages during a visit to TCZ. Later, I heard it had been put into the cage with a male jackal. Upon my latest visit this month, I was appalled to see what is obviously a mix of these two species in with the jackals, although the dog itself was nowhere to be found.
If the biomedical monkeys were a horror film, these new hybrids are straight out of Dr Moreau. Not your regular bad zoos.
And for the other animals, who knows how many have died, been sold, or killed. Every time I visit, some are moved around, between cages, between zoos, disappeared without a trace. Many have died according to the workers I talk to (invariably there is someone taking entrance fees, and no other zoo workers to be seen). New animals and new species appear, replacing those that die.
As such, it's impossible to keep track of how many animals are there, let alone where they go or have come from. It's heartbreaking to meet these animals knowing their fate. Three animals in particular I will never forget. This leopard cat was of course gone when I returned this year. In fact, as I left PVZ on my previous visit, I knew she wouldn't last more than a few days.
The moon bears were the most heartbreaking of all for me. Bears hold a special place in my heart and they were crying out, pawing out of the cage as I passed by. They sat in the sun without any shade, almost totally hairless, sick, overweight, dehydrated, with cracked paw pads. It was heartbreaking. When I returned this month, they were of course gone, the staff member told me they died months ago. Thankfully, their cage had been destroyed.
When I think of the poor leopard cat, I wish I could have saved her so she hadn't died. When I think of the bears, part of me is glad they died, to end their suffering. And in any case, with a rich and powerful owner, there is nothing I could have done in that moment.
But since they are obviously for sale, why couldn't I just buy these animals? With the footage we have, surely we can raise enough money to buy at least some of them? Yes, we can.
I, along with others in the biggest and most amazing charities in Asia, have often been criticised for 'not caring' about the animals we see in these conditions, because we don't buy them: we leave them to die. It is the most upsetting thing you can say to myself or any of the people working hard every day of their lives in these charities to save these animals. Talk to anyone who has had to leave animals in cruel situations for the greater good. Every single one of us has at least one face they will tell you about that haunts them, that they had to leave behind. I spend hours processing footage of some of these animals, and I promise you their faces are burned in my mind. And yet we still know in our hearts we cannot buy the animals.
As the owner himself openly told to the Phnom Penh Post in 2015, he would be buying two more elephants to replace Kiri and Seila if the trade had gone through. As for the profit, that would likely go to buying more animals. If you are willing to put more animals into this zoo of horrors, probably poached from the wild, only then can you buy any of these animals. Buying them is not rescuing them, it's buying a death sentence for an animal you haven't met.
More money doesn't mean the animals conditions improve: indeed there was a new guest house, entrance gate and tarmac road, but still no food or clean water. That's why these charities have had to pull out from helping these zoos. Charities can't give their donors' money to these zoos.
But there is another way to help.
Visit www.zoowatch.org and click the "Take Action" button to help support and share the photo and video evidence we have worked for years to collect. Every share will increase the pressure and as many of you will know, I don't share online petitions unless I know for a fact they are helping. Various milestones of these petitions have already been delivered to the Cambodian government. Along with media pressure and public support within the country, the effects have already been felt.
Thank you to everyone who supports my work via my Patreon page, it's only through this crowdfunding I am able to help these charities.
Thank you from all of us and the animals! Click here to read more photo essays.