A donkey suffered “a long and harrowing death” after being pushed into a tiger enclosure at a Chinese zoo last week. A shareholder fed the live donkey, which resided at the zoo, to the tigers in an act of protest over a financial dispute with the zoo.

“This is a horrific way to treat an equine, and there is no defense for such a callous act,” said Roly Owers, chief executive officer of World Horse Welfare, an equine welfare charity in the United Kingdom. “Carnivores in zoos should be given a carcass or meat, and not a terrified, vulnerable donkey who endured a long and harrowing death. It is deeply disturbing that people would think this could be an acceptable form of protest.”

A statement from the Yancheng Safari Park, near Shanghai, indicated that an angry shareholder decided to take some of the farm animals (including donkeys, goats, and sheep) to sell them at a local market as a way to make up financial losses.

However, “the guards of the zoo did not let (the shareholder) go out from the zoo because the shareholder was in an economic dispute case, and he was not allowed to take any property of the zoo out in the current situation,” said Chunjiang Zhao, PhD, of the China Agricultural University College of Animal Science and Technology and Equine Center, in Beijing, and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture’s Key Laboratory of Animal Breeding and Genetics.

“The shareholder was very angry about that,” he said. “And on an impulse, he drove to the tigers’ region of the zoo instead, and threw a donkey to the tigers, in front of the public.”

Widely spread amateur video footage shows the donkey resisting as it’s pushed into water in the tiger enclosure, then thrashing as the tigers attacked it. The zoo tigers lacked the efficiency of wild predators, causing the donkey’s suffering to linger, the experts said. The donkey also lacked the protection of a herd and a familiar environment, as it would have had in the wild.

“Although stories of predators and prey happen every day on the grasslands of Africa and other wild animal worlds, once the tigers were caught and put into a zoo and donkeys were domesticated and the donkey was bred in a farm, they became parts of the society of human beings,” Zhao said. “They should be treat according to the rules and laws and moral standards of human beings, which also reflects the levels of civilization of mankind.”

Zoo keepers stopped the shareholders from forcing the other farm animals into the tigers’ enclosure. Zoo officials have condemned the incident, earning the approbation of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

“The OIE finds the reported incident abhorrent and outside the animal welfare principles established within the OIE’s international standards,” said Matthew Stone, OIE Deputy Director General. “However, we note the recognition of animal welfare concerns by the zoo owners and the public as reported.”

Chinese authorities have charged the responsible individual with animal cruelty, Zhao said.

China’s animal welfare considerations continue to evolve, and public outcry within the country in response to the video is a good sign that opinion about animal welfare is changing in a positive direction, Zhao said.

“This should be regarded as accident, which was caused by an impulsive person who was not in normal mental state,” he said. “Most people (in China) think it was a very cruel and bloody act to throw an alive animal to the tigers.”

However, international organizations want to ensure that this was a singular incident by an “impulsive person” and not a trend. “Whether (the live feeding of animals to predators) happens more regularly as a form of entertainment at zoos is something we are working with our partners at the Donkey Sanctuary to determine,” said Owers.

Meanwhile, these organizations will continue their efforts in that country—especially in light of this incident.

“World Horse Welfare has recently started a project in China, where the welfare of donkeys is a key area of concern, and have already had initial contact with another project partner there who echoed our disgust at this incident,” Owers added. “We will be sharing this footage with a number of influential organizations within China to highlight how completely unacceptable it is and try to ascertain whether the feeding of live equines to carnivores in zoos is more widespread in the region.”

The OIE echoed this need: “While all the OIE’s Members have endorsed the OIE’s animal welfare international standards and the OIE Animal Welfare Global Strategy, we recognize the challenge of implementation and the ongoing support required,” said Stone. “The OIE is actively engaged in supporting our Members in meeting these challenges through a variety of mechanisms.”