A roaring success?

Why a celebrity zookeeping series has alarmed animal activists

Li Yuchun2 w

Had an elephant of a task: Ni Ni

Li Yuchun first became a household name when she entered Super Girl, a reality singing competition made by Hunan Satellite TV back in 2005. Over 400 million viewers tuned in to watch the season finale, and they voted Li the winner. Since then the singer’s popularity has gone from strength to strength. Li picked up parts in movies and, with her androgynous looks, she’s become something of a fashion icon.

In the last few months, Li has returned to her reality TV roots by appearing in Wonderful Friends, another show made by Hunan Satellite TV. In each episode Li and five other celebrity participants are given different zookeeping tasks at Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou. The park, one of the largest in the country, boasts 20,000 animals and “the world’s most enchanting white tiger performance for guests”.

The camera follows the celebrities as they learn to feed the animals, administer vaccinations and even participate in performances with them.

The show’s mission, Chimelong says earnestly on its website, is to bring humans and animals closer together.

The series has entertained viewers since late January. For instance, one episode features Li learning to perform with a beluga whale (at one point she even stands on it). Indeed, the singer becomes so attached to the mammal that when she has to say goodbye she gets weepy.

In another episode, the celebrities have to separate a panda cub from its mother (a natural process since pandas are solitary animals). Missing its mother, the cub refuses to come down from a tree. The amateur zookeepers must then try different methods to coax it down. When they finally succeed, there is hugging (and more weeping).

Of course, like most reality TV shows, the format is designed to reveal a little of the personalities of the celebrities concerned. Li is clearly not a morning person, becoming noticeably annoyed when the producers wake her up at the crack of dawn for training.

Her teammate Du Tianhao also has a habit of throwing diva-like tantrums, which prompted some fans to start a petition to get him off the series.

“Du Tianhao is so childish… He is selfish, self-righteous and irresponsible. Please kick him off the show,” one netizen wrote on weibo.

But the controversy hasn’t dampened viewer enthusiasm. The show is so popular that it has become the ratings champion for eight consecutive weeks, says Tencent Entertainment.

Audiences also say that it has helped them develop a new-found affection for animals.

“The little animals on the show are so cute. It’s like they understand what the humans are saying. I wish I could have close contact with them,” one fan gushed.

Animal welfare advocates have been much less impressed. “There are so many reasons why Wonderful Friends shouldn’t be on the air,” Dave Neale of Animals Asia, an advocacy group based in Hong Kong, complained in a statement from the organisation. “It is hugely misleading to the public about the needs and welfare of captive animals and does so while putting their welfare and health at risk.”

There are definitely moments when animal well-being is in question. In one episode, Ni Ni, an actress who starred in Zhang Yimou’s film The Flowers of War, gives an elephant a pedicure using a very large nail file and a huge pair of forceps. The actress, inexperienced and clumsy, cuts away determinedly. The elephant squeals in annoyance and pain. In another episode, two stars are put in charge of giving vaccinations to a group of tigers. They have to shoot the injections into the animals from some distance, which is presumably a job for specialists.

Putting the animals at risk also presents dangers for the celebrities. Ni, for instance, was bitten by a chimpanzee on the first day of filming and had to be rushed to hospital for rabies shots. Another participant risked an almighty trampling when he got too close to the elephants (scenes which might have made for spellbinding television, admittedly).

In light of the criticism, Hunan Satellite TV told The Beijing News that the celebrities had undergone training before filming began (without explaining what kind). It also added that professional zookeepers can be seen supervising them during the show.

But the New York Times then pointed out that the series violates Chinese laws. In 2010, the State Forestry Administration banned entertainment activities at zoos that put non-professionals in close contact with wild animals. However, the ban has carried no obvious penalties and has been loosely enforced. It seems that the rules are widely ignored by Chinese zoos and wildlife parks in general, where visitors get their kicks petting many of the animals and posing for photographs with them.

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