A Zoo For Cats and Dogs!
And other animals. But it’s not every day you get to see the British House Cat exhibited alongside a St Bernard in the zoo! Then again, have you ever been to Pyongyang Zoo?
I was in North Korea’s capital city a day early. Due to Chinese sanctions- something about a “Weather Satellite”?- my flight in had been cancelled and I’d been put on an Air Koryo flight departing a day early from Beijing. That meant that my tour group had an extra day to kill in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the guides wanted us to spend that time wisely at the Pyongyang Zoo.
I’ve visited some lacklustre and downright depressing zoos in my travels- the worst being the Abkhazian Space Monkey Concentration Camp in Sukhumi– and I wasn’t too keen on visiting another hell hole of enclosed and angry animals on the brink of death.
I was expecting the worst. What mad creatures had been dreamed up in some insane nuclear laboratory beneath the DMZ and put on display here? I just didn’t know.
In North Korea though, you don’t get too much say when it comes to the day’s itinerary. To the Pyongyang Zoo I was going.
What I wasn’t expecting was the giant and definitely insane Tiger Head that acted as a beastly entrance to the zoo. School kids and soldiers were queuing up outside, all in neat rank and file, before marching fearlessly into the open jaws of the wild animal.
This was certainly bizarre, but everything was clean and in order. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the hell hole I’d envisaged in my Western Imperialist bias.
With conflicting morals in my mind, into the Tiger Head I marched, and on the other side lay the Pyongyang Zoo.
The tour guides that accompanied the group, the stoic Mrs O and the young Miss Hong, were both ecstatic that we had the chance to visit. They were exceptionally proud of what is their country’s only zoo, especially as it had recently just reopened only a few months earlier after an extensive- and presumably expensive- refurbishment.
Not only were the guides exceptionally proud, but a day out at the Pyongyang Zoo was a big affair for all of the citizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. There were soldiers in uniform, men in suits and women in their finest dresses. I was decidedly under dressed in simple shorts and a t-shirt.
First up was the reptile enclosure. This was shaped, obviously, like a giant snake.
And inside could be found everything from tortoises to crocodiles. The tortoises were donated to the zoo by the one and only, the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.
While the crocodiles were a gift to Kim Jong Il, presented by the General Director of a Chinese investment firm.
This was a common theme in the Pyongyang Zoo, all the animals were gifts from foreign dignitaries, African dictators, Soviet rulers or from the Leaders of Korea themselves, the Kim family, to their hardworking people.
Next up was the big cat enclosure. There were- unfortunately- rugged and forlorn looking tigers and lions stalking around their cages.
There was a larger open air pen they could be let into, but it was still rather cramped for these large beasts. Some Koreans were busy trimming the grass in the enclosure itself when I first looked, and a few minutes later the lions were released.
I think the workers got out before this…
Near the lions and tigers- but in separate enclosures- were horses, deer, goat, and even a donkey donated from the once great North Korean ally and now fallen government of the Democratic Republic of Somalia.
The grey and tattered elephants were being taunted by local visitors throwing food into their mouths- maybe this was its only source of nutrition, I don’t know- but needless to say our group quickly succumbed to the same temptation and began throwing food for the elephant to catch too. In DPRK all morals quickly go flying into the trunk of an elephant.
After also feeding a rather photogenic giraffe, the group was ushered into the most spectacular of enclosures. The domestic animal habitat.
In the first cage, infamously rare chickens were being netted by workers and moved out the back after being tranquillised… Perhaps there’s a metaphor and some dark symbolism in that sentence somewhere.
And along from the poultry, the real highlight of the Pyongyang Zoo was on display. That most fabled, mythical and elusive of beasts. The British House Cat.
And not just the British House Cat, but all manner and breed of domesticated cat.
But this wasn’t just a zoo for cats, no this was a zoo for cats and dogs.
Domesticated dogs were also on display in their enclosures, a rarity in Korea as most are probably sent to be turned into the country’s most infamous dish, Dog Soup, which I would in fact be sampling only a few days later.
The final enclosure- before it was time for some well earned North Korean style ice cream- was the bear pit.
This proved popular with the locals, but the bears were a rather sorry sight as they reached up on their hind legs to the amusement of the crowd.
I’m not a bear expert, but I don’t think this is normal behaviour.
Making a quick escape from the bears, and with ice cream in hand there was time for one last sight. The hippo pool. This was the scene of one of the many strange and confusing incidents that befell us all in the zoo that day, as a local man demonstrated the true resilience, courage and bravery of the workers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by attempting to insert his folder into the jaws of the hippo.
A maverick move by any standard, and one from which he somehow walked away with all his limbs still attached.
My tour of the Pyongyang Zoo came to a close with that bizarre incident, and out of the Tiger Head I walked- slightly confused- to explore more of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, wondering what else lay ahead, but knowing that it would be as confusing as a man feeding his folder to a hippo.