Beijing: At a wildlife park outside Beijing a dozen lions battle over a live chicken thrown into their enclosure by a tourist -- who has paid four dollars for the privilege.
A siren wails and three four-wheel-drive vehicles race into action, screeching to a halt just shy of the animals to separate them and restore harmony to the caged pride -- until the next feeding.
"It was scary," says one visitor, standing at a viewing point above the enclosure.
"Yes, but it was thrilling too, lots of fun," adds her friend, part of a group touring the Badaling park.
Throwing live animals to the lions is a popular attraction. For 60 dollars, visitors can feed them a bleating goat.
Ethically questionable practices such as this, seen at zoos around China, have contributed to the government producing the nation`s first draft animal protection law.
"Animals in most of the nation’s zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums are a serious concern," said Peter Li, a China specialist for Humane Society International, a US-based animal group.
Li, who this month took part in the first zoo directors` workshop in Beijing aimed at addressing problems in China, added that most zoos were "decades behind the more progressive standards of zoos in industrialised nations."
China has been plagued by a series of scandals that has thrown the spotlight on poor conditions in many of the nation`s wildlife parks.
In recent months, 11 endangered Siberian tigers starved to death at a cash-strapped park in the northeastern province of Liaoning where they were fed chicken bones, and two others were shot after they mauled a worker.
Allegations that the zoo had harvested parts of the dead animals to make lucrative virility tonics caused an outcry, even in a nation where illegal trade in animal parts thrives due to their perceived medicinal benefits.
In nearby Heilongjiang province, authorities also uncovered a mass grave of animals -- including lions, tigers and leopards -- that died of illness and malnutrition at a wildlife park, state media reported in March.
"That hit the headlines and shocked a lot of Chinese but it`s the tip of an iceberg," said Paul Littlefair, who oversees the international programmes of UK-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), with a focus on East Asia.
"A lot of animals are generally malnourished and may slowly deteriorate over a period of time and be subject to health issues that there is little veterinary support for."
While the live feedings at Badaling have attracted controversy, zoos in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have improved conditions over the past decade.
According to Littlefair, the Beijing Zoo has opened a much larger elephant enclosure and otters that used to live on concrete now enjoy a natural environment with waterfalls.
The zoo denied to a news recent reports that it was serving meat from zoo animals at its cafe.
But Littlefair admitted most zoos were still "stagnating."
Xie Zhong, vice secretary general of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, said that private ownership of wildlife parks was partly to blame.
"We have repeatedly emphasised that zoos should be for the public good, the government must manage them," Xie said.
"Private owners take all the money... they give their workers very little money and the cash they invest in animals only just keeps them alive -- their aim is profit."
Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, added animals were often exposed to abuse by the public.
"People often shout at, throw objects and feed garbage to animals," she said, citing the example of a university student who poured acid into the bear pit at Beijing Zoo in 2002, injuring several of the animals.
According to Gabriel, there have been small improvements, with some establishments removing signs such as "bear gall bladder is good for medicine and tiger skins are good for rugs."
But experts say that laws governing the treatment of animals in captivity are badly needed.
A draft animal protection law is currently being discussed, but is not expected to come into force for several years.
The draft includes a clause prohibiting the feeding of live prey and another stipulating that an establishment where animals are suffering due to lack of funds will be fined if it does not report its situation to the government.
Li says increased public awareness is key to the fight for animal rights.
"Compared with their parents` or grandparents` generations whose only concern was putting food on the table, the younger generations have the luxury of thinking more of other so-called `unessential` things such as travel and companion animals," said Li.
"When I was back in China in the 1980s, `animal protection`, `animal welfare` and `compassion for non-human individuals` were never phrases in China. Today, all these terms are known to many over there," he added.
"The younger generation shall be a mighty force against animal cruelty in China."