PUSAN, South Korea — Every night at 8 p.m., Roma Khachaturyan, a Russian-Armenian from Moscow who now lives in Korea, feeds a Siberian tiger named Cesar.
Khachaturyan coaxes the 198-kg cat from its pen into a smaller holding cage. And then, protected from its powerful paws, he enters the pen and begins tossing the tiger dead chickens and hunks of raw meat.
But there is something strange about Cesar’s environment. The windows surrounding the tiger are not those of a zoo, but the Peninsula coffee shop in Hotel Lotte Pusan, a 43-story luxury hotel in South Korea’s largest seaport. The cat spends its daylight hours dozing and his nights pacing and listening to the sounds of the city just outside its walls. It is nothing more than a diversion for diners sipping house red or mopping up egg yolk with their toast.
The Lotte Pusan is by no means unique. In much of Asia, endangered animals such as tigers, bears and gibbons are kept in restaurants, hotels and even homes. In Thailand, tigers and sun bears are displayed in riverside snake shows, and a Bangkok department store named Pata had an indoor zoo until it burned down in 1992, killing all the animals.
In Cambodia, tigers, bears and gibbons lure customers or simply act as good luck charms for their owners, said Sun Hean, a former deputy director of the Cambodian Wildlife Protection Office who is now completing a graduate degree at the University of Montana. Cambodia has tried to end abuse of endangered animals, but legislative efforts have been slow, and even government officials keep the animals as pets, he said.
Tigers are mostly kept at private houses of some powerful and rich government people,” Sun said. “This is because they believe that they will be powerful and smart forever if they have a tiger at home. The bears and gibbons are mostly kept at restaurants and hotels as pets to attract customers. Some restaurants in Phnom Penh have also served bear soup for the Chinese and Korean people.”
Perhaps the most shocking such story comes from Guilin, China, where the London Daily Mirror reported last year that an animal park called Tiger Mountain was holding gruesome shows in which live pigs and calves were fed to tigers while cheering tourists watched, occasionally tossing lighted cigarette butts at the cats. Older tigers and bears were themselves slaughtered and cooked for tourists in the park’s restaurant, and their bones were pulverized and turned into “tiger wine,” thought to be an aphrodisiac, the paper reported.
Embarrassed by the spectacle, the Chinese government has shut the show down several times, only to have it reopen under the protection of corrupt local officials, the Mirror reported. At last report, the park was still open but the government had shut down the show, said Jill Robinson, the Hong Kong-based founder of the Animals Asia Foundation.
Robinson’s organization played a role in calling attention to Tiger Mountain, and it has documented abuses such as a disco that kept a caged wolf cub and a tiger as an attraction. But she said the Chinese government shut down the disco when Animals Asia blew the whistle on it. And the government has shown increasing interest in animal welfare.
Once regarded as a Western propaganda tool for attacking China, animal-welfare issues have become acceptable topics of discussion, Robinson said. The Internet has played a role in creating interest in how tigers, bears and other animals are treated, she said.
“The term ‘animal welfare’ is a perfectly acceptable word now, even for government officials,” Robinson said.
By some standards, the tiger in Lotte Pusan is comparatively well-treated. Though the tiger feeds in a small cage, during the rest of the time he roams an area filled with fake plants and waterfalls. The president of Lotte acquired the tiger from a traveling zoo in Moscow, and Khachaturyan, the keeper, came along to take care of the animal.
“As soon as he experienced a little bit of freedom here in the open air, he became very, very dangerous,” Khachaturyan said. “He can kill little birds, and it interests him. He looks around and he finds that he is unhappy.”
But the hotel is a strange place to encounter wildlife. It boasts a department store, 14 restaurants, two elephants and a whole chorus line of Las Vegas dancers wearing nothing but spangled G-strings and feather headdresses. Two Thai elephants are shackled in an unlighted cage backstage and perform in the nightly revue. (Two elephant keepers, themselves Thai, live in a room next to the foul pen). Once one of the elephants used its trunk to unscrew the bolt holding his buddy’s shackles, and the freed elephant ambled through the department store. A line of employees shooed the creature back to its prison.
Lotte’s use of an endangered species for commercial purposes has drawn criticism. Some British and Korean environmentalists showed up to complain about Cesar. And in Russia, wildlife officials are unhappy about the thought of a Russian tiger in a Korean coffee shop.
Boris Litvinov, deputy director of the Tiger Department of the Federal Department for Protecting Nature, said Lotte houses the cat “not because of care for the tiger, but because of commercial interests and because of business. It’s a disgrace for our tiger to be there. But people who deal with zoos and circuses, have a different mind-set. They just don’t care for animals.”
Khachaturyan disputes that. He admits that a coffee shop is not the best place for a tiger. But its pen, open to the wind and the rain, is no worse than a zoo, he says. He scoffs at environmentalists who fret about a tiger living out in the elements. “Do tigers have umbrellas in the wild?” he said. He adds that there is no way a tiger born in captivity could return to the Russian taiga hundreds of kilometers to the north.
In some places, officials are trying to tackle the problem, but they find their regulations are too weak to prosecute those who abuse animals, said Sun, the former Cambodian official. “We did prohibit people from hunting, selling and trading the endangered species, but when they keep them as pets, we have no clue [about how] to confiscate or fine them because it’s not in the regulations.”
At Lotte Pusan, Khachaturyan is defensive about his tiger, but, he knows that Cesar is melancholy. In fact, so is the tiger keeper at times. Whenever he feels down, he goes and sits just outside the cage and communes with the animal.
“The thing is, the tiger can speak Russian to me,” Khachaturyan said. “So when I am bored, I go talk to the tiger in Russian. What else can I do? He is my countryman.”
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