PINGTUNG COUNTY, Taiwan (Reuters Life!) - Black bears claw their cages and glare at visitors at this daunting, one-of-a-kind animal center in Taiwan.
Captive male orangutans hoist barrels to appear bigger than men. Gibbons scream and macaques snatch the glasses off people’s faces. A tortoise, given free rein, plods after visitors, sometimes munching their shoelaces.
But the humans in charge say these animals just want their two-legged, invitation-only visitors to know the shocking stories of how they ended up at the southern Taiwan facility: a rescue center for smuggled animals doubling as an educational zoo.
Among the stories: 16 tigers were abandoned by a Taiwan breeder whose business failed; two bears were mistakenly trapped; an orangutan was turned loose in downtown Taipei; and, a gibbon was thrown out of a Taiwan housing complex due to noise complaints.
The tortoise was dropped off outside the facility’s gate.
Most animals were originally smuggled to Taiwan from Southeast Asia, and a few were taken illegally from forests on the island. They later became pets for Taiwan families who had no idea the pin-up baby furballs would grow up to be unmanageable adults.
“One day the smuggling will stop,” said Yen Jen-teh, director-general of Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau, after a visit this month.
The two-hectare Pingtung Rescue Center allows about 9,000 visitors a year, turning away others to avoid crowds that could literally scare some of the wild birds to death.
Eye-to eye-with 850 abandoned animals representing 106 species, humans see first hand the impact of the smuggling trade.
“We’re constantly checking and receiving animals and the demand for smuggled pets is still there, so we’ve hit education hard,” rescue center Director Kurtis Pei said.
Although Taiwan’s animal smuggling record has improved over the past 20 years, some locals still order animals online, said Lin Jieng-fen, a center staff member.
The center opened in 1992 and runs on an annual T$37 million ($1.135 million) budget, mostly from the government and the odd private donation. Education became a major focus six years ago.
It usually receives animals after they become unmanageable as pets and are then either turned in or cut loose.
Although the rescue center includes zoo hallmarks such as signs and a gift shop, it focuses more on rescues by stopping animal reproduction, seeking foster families and even letting a few creatures return to the wild.
“We’re a help for animals, though you can’t speak of accomplishments,” Pei said. “We hope we can keep improving.”
Next year, the rescue center will open a public visitor area to attract as many as 80,000 more people annually.
Editing by David Fox