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Yesterday I visited Saigon Zoo. I didn't mean to: I thought I was buying a ticket to the History Museum, but ended up in the zoo and stayed. My inner culture vulture is disappointed with myself, but at heart I'm more interested in animals than in Cham sculpture.
The Lonely Planet guide says "We strongly recommend against visiting the poorly kept zoo animals". This is the same Lonely Planet that publishes a guidebook to Burma. The Vietnam guidebook is not shy of issuing ethical instruction and I for one do not appreciate it.
The animals were indeed kept in poor but not absolutely barbaric conditions. The zoo is probably like London Zoo was about thirty-five years ago; our expectations and sensibilities have changed rapidly. Nevertheless, the large mammals in particular were kept in enclosures that were far too small for them. The worst examples: a gibbon kept in a tiny cage; a hippo sat motionless in a small, vile pool.
In both cases, it is a relevant question whether you are doing more harm than good by visiting and paying the dollars. In the case of Burma, I prefer to follow the advice of Aung Sang Suu Kyi; this avoids what would otherwise be an agonising decision. In the case of the zoo, there is at least some chance that the money will contribute to improving the facilities. I do not hold out much hope, though: although the people who run the zoo will be aware that conditions fall short of those expected in the west, the majority of visitors are Vietnamese, and they could not care less as far as I can see. So there may be little commercial incentive to improve. Many of the visitors delighted in harassing the animals. Some also fed them anything that came to hand. Another reminder that attitudes to animals here differ sharply from those in northern Europe; even from mine, and I'm no animal rights activist. I came close to hitting one fat moron, teaching his stupid fat son how not to behave by harassing and feeding sweets to the bears.
But I stayed anyway, of course, because I love watching animals. The one species that you are supposed to feed at the zoo is the goats:
This is a white rhinoceros:
Leopard, lioness, lion:
Asiatic black bears:
A green iguana:
A unicorn gemsbok:
A blesbok, perhaps:
And an orang utan: