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Concrete jungle: Department store's zoo sparks controversy

More than 200 species of animals inside cages and pens face grim conditions at a shopping mall's rooftop zoo in Bangkok.

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By Warangkana Chomchuen, NBC News

BANGKOK, Thailand – A few staff members cast suspicious looks at me as my video camera rolled. One asked why I was filming.

I wasn't in army-ruled Myanmar or communist North Korea. I was visiting a zoo – in Bangkok – and the employees were monitoring me closely.

"One of our zookeepers even has a picture of the gorilla in his wallet, instead of his wife," the staff member said. "You see, we really love our animals."

But it's a tough love out here at Pata Zoo, a concrete jungle on the top two floors of a department store on a busy road in Bangkok.

Solitary penguin  
About 200 species – a gorilla, a penguin, bears, tigers, leopards, sheep, flamingos, pythons, and nocturnal animals – are crammed into cages and pens that are too small or otherwise inadequate for them. The two floors of the zoo are each about the size of a soccer field.

The zoo's superstar, a 20-year-old female gorilla, lives in a 10x15-yard concrete pen. "Bua Noi," as she is called, sat gripping the iron bars of her dim cage, with only a tire, ropes, and TV playing slapstick comedy to keep her company on the day I visited.

Warangkana Chomchuen / NBC News

The Pata Zoo's star attraction, "Bua Noi" a 20-year-old gorilla, sits in her dimly lit cage.

Nearby, two tigers restlessly walked in their cages, their spines and ribs visibly protruding, their hollow-looking faces seemingly all bone. A black jaguar jumped wildly up and down on the fence at the sight of approaching visitors two feet away. And one dazed Humboldt penguin, the lone survivor out of an original group of a dozen, stared blankly at a glass wall in its air-conditioned room. 

"No animals can stay healthy psychologically and physically in a building or in an air-conditioned room," said Edwin Wiek, director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. "A zoo in a building like Pata is hazardous to animals and humans. It should be a thing of the past."

Animal-rights activists have been fighting to shut down the zoo for years, but it's a losing battle. The zoo is not illegal in Thailand. The animals were obtained legally and the zoo has a license.

'Long life expectancy'
There just is no real legislation in place to protect animal welfare.

The zoo’s managers stand by their facility’s safety and size. "Our enclosures aren’t so small that the animals can't move," said Kanit Sermsrimongkol, Pata Zoo’s managing director. "Besides, our animals have long life expectancy and they reproduce. That’s an indicator of their good health."
 
Public anger and controversy over the Pata Zoo erupts from time to time. But the zoo tends to play it down by inviting media and zoo authorities in for inspection. Eventually the publicity dies down, people forget about it, and the zoo's permit is renewed.

Sophon Damnui, director of Thailand’s Zoological Park Organization, admits the vague laws governing zoos are problematic. The only existing laws relating to wildlife protection state a zoo must be "appropriate" when it comes to caring for captive animals.

"The bill hasn't been amended to address the issue," Sophon said. "But Pata Zoo has a permit. It has zookeepers to tend to animals' basic needs and their animals don’t have a problem, so that's OK."

Animal-rights activists are stymied by the lack of laws. "The law is never on our side," said Roger Lohanan, secretary of the Thai Animal Guardian Association. "We’ve tried every legal loophole, but there's nothing we can do."

Warangkana Chomchuen / NBC News

Some tourists take pictures outside the bear cage at Bangkok's Pata Zoo.

His major concern is animal safety, especially in case of fire. Before Pata there was another zoo inside a building in Bangkok, but most of the animals were trapped and killed when a fire broke out a few years ago.

"The animals can only wait to be rescued and certainly they will be the last thing on people's mind if something bad happens," Lohanan said.

Cultural cruelty?
The problems at Pata Zoo reflect a broader issue of rampant animal cruelty and abuse in Thailand. It isn't a rare sight in big cities to see men walking elephants on hot concrete streets or pet dogs performing tricks for hours in busy, bustling shopping areas – all in the effort to earn some petty cash.  

Weak law enforcement and punishment – a 1,000 Baht ($33) fine or one month in jail for animal abuse – exacerbates the problem. 

Appalling records of animal treatment in Thailand make people wonder what happened to this Buddhist country, where compassion for all living beings reigns first in Buddha's teaching.

Animal-welfare campaigners call it cultural cruelty. Many Thais still view animals as one of their possessions, to treat as they see fit, and kindness and compassion usually don't go beyond food and shelter.

"Some people say, 'I love my fighting cock, because it's a good fighter'. This is exactly the same mentality the zoo owner has," said Lohanan, referring to cockfighting's enduring popularity across Thailand. "They said they love their animals, but it's an ancient kind of love."

The Thai Animal Guardian Association and other animal-rights groups are pushing for a more effective animal protection law. They drafted the bill and proposed it five years ago, but it's been buried deep under Thailand’s ongoing political mess

And zoos are still popular.  The birth of a baby panda last year drove the country into a frenzy and spurred the idea of importing even more exotic animals to breed on Thai soil. While it wasn’t exactly crowded, about 70 adults and kids were visiting the Pata Zoo the day I was there.   

Animal-rights activists said they don't want to give up hope, but acknowledge that it will take a while for the draft bill to get attention and for the animal welfare mentality to kick in.

"When the public is ready to come out and say, 'We don't want it,' then you can shut down Pata Zoo," Lohanan said. "Until then, there's nothing we can do."