BEIJING • In a mall in southern China, a polar bear named Pizza paces past murals of icebergs in his glass enclosure, shaking his head under the artificial lights and crouching by an air vent, sniffing the outside world.
All these are distress behaviours, say Chinese animal welfare advocates, who on Tuesday called on Mr Zhu Xiaodan, the governor of Guangdong province, where Pizza lives in an aquarium at the Grandview Mall, to move the bear to a more appropriate environment.
Pizza has become known as "the world's saddest polar bear", the advocates from 48 organisations wrote in an open letter to Mr Zhu. They added that they hoped "the Guangdong government would close Grandview Polar Sea World" where hundreds of animals - including arctic wolves and beluga whales - are housed in small enclosures over several floors. They share the retail emporium with an electronic games arcade, a 3-D movie theatre, a supermarket and leading clothing brands.
The activists say Pizza's plight is part of a disturbing trend in China: using wild animals to attract customers to shopping malls as more turn to e-commerce.
At a news conference on Tuesday, activists showed reporters photos of an elephant used to sell cellphones outside a mall on the outskirts of Beijing, and sea lions offered for interactions with shoppers who spent more than 500 yuan (S$100) at another Beijing mall.
The Grandview Mall aquarium defended itself this week, saying in an e-mail statement that Pizza is "very healthy", and that the aquarium was engaged in scientific education and research and in the protection of biodiversity. "You can't entirely separate animal welfare from these social benefits," it said.
The aquarium is no different from other facilities in China or the world, the statement said, adding that it has 130 specialists caring for its animals. Reports that Pizza is suffering are distorted and have been referred to the authorities, it said, in a thinly veiled warning of possible legal action.
Wild animals like polar bears require a large natural habitat to maintain their physical and mental health, said Ms Wendy Higgins, a spokesman for Humane Society International. "Pizza spends every single day on his own with nowhere to hide, just subjected to people banging on the glass and taking photographs."
A Wildlife Protection Law came into force in China in 1989 and was updated in July, but it allows the capture and breeding of wild animals for commercial purposes and permits using them for public displays and performances. A draft law on animal cruelty that would extend protection to pets, farm livestock and laboratory animals was proposed in 2009 but has yet to be adopted.