11 min read

Seals Trapped In Shopping Mall Can't Even Open Their Eyes

It’s a “living hell for animals.”

Two years ago, a captive polar bear named Pizza grabbed the world’s attention when he was filmed lying in a small tank, staring out listlessly as tourists snapped photos of him. He was dubbed the “world’s saddest polar bear,” and there was an international outcry about his living conditions — at the time, he was being kept in a sunless glass-windowed room with only a small pool to swim in at the Grandview Aquarium, a substandard “zoo” located in a shopping mall in Guangzhou, China.

Polar bear in tin zoo tank
Pizza in his tiny tank at Grandview Aquarium | Animals Asia

Pizza was eventually moved to Tianjin Haichang Polar Ocean World, an aquarium in northern China, where he was reunited with his mother. While there are still serious concerns about the marine park where he now lives — his enclosure appears to be small and unnatural, and the aquarium features performing animal shows — Pizza appears slightly healthier now, according to National Geographic.

Polar bear in tiny tank at zoo
Pizza in his tiny tank at Grandview Aquarium | Animals Asia

While Pizza may have left, Grandview Aquarium, his original home, is still open, and its resident animals, including belugas, seals and a walrus, continue to suffer there every single day.

Captive belugas in tiny tank
The four captive belugas at Grandview Aquarium live in a tiny tank. | CCA

Earlier this year, investigators from China Cetacean Alliance (CCA) visited the zoo to document the current conditions, and they were shocked by what they saw. In fact, they described it as a “living hell for animals.”

Beluga whale inside tiny tank

The four resident beluga whales (originally caught in the wild in Russia) had no enrichment inside their tiny tank, and displayed stereotypic behaviors — repetitive patterns that indicate stress in captive animals — like swimming in circles and pressing their foreheads against the wall of their pool to turn. Other times, they appeared lethargic and languished at the bottom of the pool, only rising to the surface to get a breath of air.

Beluga being forced to perform at aquarium
One of the captive belugas being forced to perform in a show | CCA

The belugas were also forced to perform for paying guests, which didn’t seem to be an enjoyable experience for the animals, the investigators observed.

Captive beluga being forced to perform

“Each day they are forced to perform unnatural behaviours such as curling their bodies into circles and kissing members of the audience as part of choreographed performances,” CCA wrote in its report. “The performance witnessed by our investigators showed one whale not responding to its trainer as requested, clearly showing signs of boredom with its routine.”

Spotted seals inside tiny tank
The seals are also kept in a tiny tank at the aquarium. | CCA

“Freedom to swim, hunt, [and] explore a vast ocean and enjoy a community life is not possible for these majestic animals in captivity,” the group added.

Poor water quality in seal tank
The poor water quality in the seal tank | CCA

There were also seven spotted seals at the aquarium, and they didn’t have things much better. The water in their tank was extremely murky, and the seals had to squint or close their eyes due to the poor water quality. The seals’ enclosure also reeked of disinfectant, the group said.

Seals squinting in tank with poor water quality
The seals squinted in the poor water quality | CCA

The two sea lions also didn’t have enrichment in their miniscule tank, and the investigators observed them smashing their snouts at the bottom of their tank, despite there being nothing but excrement and debris there.

Sea lion inside tiny tank
One of the sea lions at Grandview Aquarium | CCA

There was also a lone walrus who circled his tank, and pushed his pectoral fins against the wall and turned around, again and again.

Sea lion biting at floor of tank

“The pool had no enrichment [and] no shelter and the walrus had no companions,” CCA said.

Walrus inside tank at aquarium
The lone walrus at Grandview Aquarium | CCA

Strangely enough, there are also two Alaskan malamutes, who are domestic dogs, inside the zoo’s “Arctic Wolf Pavilion.” The dogs had things pretty tough as well.

Walrus using pool wall to turn in tank
The walrus using the pool wall to turn around in the tank | CCA

“Malamutes need a large outdoor space, but unfortunately these dogs are confined to one small room with no sunshine, no grass and very few toys,” China Cetacean Alliance said.

Alaskan Malamutes inside tank
The two Alaskan Malamutes at Grandview Aquarium | CCA

These weren’t the only animals at the zoo — there was also a Chinese water dragon with an injured snout, as well as alpacas, meerkats, chinchillas, squirrel monkeys, tortoises and dogs and cats at an accompanying pet exhibit. All of the animals were kept in extremely small and dirty enclosures, and had no enrichment, according to the report.

Animals at pet exhibit
A rabbit, pug and monkeys at the pet exhibit | CCA

The investigators were also keenly aware of the animals who were not there — a large number of fish had died, and the pool that once housed a whale shark has been empty since 2016.

Empty whale shark exhibit
The empty whale shark exhibit | CCA

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), said that she isn’t surprised things are still bad at Grandview Aquarium — in fact, she expects conditions to become increasingly worse at the facility ages. Rose visited the zoo in 2016, and she remembers the belugas acting in troubling ways. For instance, one beluga played with a paint chip that had fallen off its tank.

“First of all, the paint shouldn’t be chipping,” Rose told The Dodo. “Whatever paint they’re using is not appropriate for these saltwater tanks because it’s chipping. But if it is chipping, they should be in there all of the time cleaning it up because it’s dangerous for animals to ingest paint chips, or you should have a filtration system that handles it and remove those paint chips constantly. We actually watched this one beluga playing with it — sucking it in and blowing it out, sucking it in and blowing it out. Basically, that was a toy … which also begs the question, ‘Why weren’t there real toys in there?’ It was really bizarre.”

Belugas lying on floor of tank
Belugas lying on the floor of their tank in 2016 | AWI

Rose also believes the zoo’s location in a shopping mall is highly inappropriate.

“If any of these animals got out, they’d be in hysterics — they’d be completely traumatized,” Rose said. “There’d be nowhere for them to go, and they’d be amongst a bunch of screaming, panicking people.”

Chinese shopping mall
The shopping mall in which Grandview Aquarium is located | CCA

The zoo isn’t on the ground floor, so if a natural disaster hits, the tanks could leak or break, which would cause chaos in the shopping mall, Rose said.

The best thing people can do to help the residents at Grandview Aquarium, as well as animals at other subpar facilities in China, is to talk about the situation on social media, Rose said.

Shopping mall in China
The entrance to Grandview Aquarium in the shopping mall | CCA

“The more Westerners talk about how horrible they find what is happening in China, the more China will realize how much of a black eye their trade in wild-caught cetaceans is giving them globally,” Rose said. “They won’t like that and it may eventually get them to rethink what they’re doing.”

You can also support further investigations by CCA by making a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute, which is a member of CCA.