Sydney Morning Herald, Ben Doherty

BANGKOK: There is a gorilla on the seventh floor of a department store in Bangkok.

”King Kong” spends his days alone. There are no trees in his 15-by-10-metre concrete enclosure, just a tyre and a few ropes hanging from the low ceiling.

Ten metres away, a penguin is alone in an air-conditioned pen, standing on tiles next to a pool of water smaller than a bath and nowhere near deep enough for him to swim. Just a few years ago, there were a dozen penguins. Only this one survives.

Bangkok’s Pata Zoo sits atop a department store on a busy road in the northern suburbs of Bangkok. Crammed into cages and pens across the sixth and seventh floors of the ageing building are more than 200 species – a menagerie of orang-utans, pythons, turtles, flamingos, monkeys, leopards, tigers, bears and even a Shetland pony.

The director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Edwin Wiek, wants the zoo closed. ”Basically, it is an animal prison on top of a shopping mall.

”The animals have very little room, there is very little sunlight, the enclosures are dirty, they smell bad and people are coming past all day, getting far too close to the animals, which [stresses them].

”In 200 steps you can see 50 different species. Most people know that this is not an acceptable way to keep animals.”

Thailand, like much of south-east Asia, faces myriad animal-welfare issues. Cockfighting remains a popular spectator sport, elephants are still put to work on the traffic-choked streets of Bangkok and controversy surrounds the popular monk-run Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, where visitors can pay to pat tigers critics say are cowed into submission.

The Thai capital remains a hub for smuggling animals across the region and the world.

But Pata Zoo represents the underlying, fundamental problem: a lack of legislation on animal welfare. Pata Zoo is breaking no laws.

”There is no rule or regulation saying how much space each animal needs,” the zoo’s director, Kanit Sermsirimongkol, says. ”It’s not about space, it’s about the way in which you treat the animals.

”The space that we provide to the animals is enough for them to freely move around and to exercise. The zoo has a vet … and we have many species of animals successfully breeding. That shows the animals are healthy and well-managed.”

”There is an animal-welfare law in Thailand, but it is very simple, very ineffective, and is rarely enforced,” Mr Wiek says.

But attitudes towards animal welfare are changing.

Business at Pata is slow. During the three hours the Herald spends there, there are barely 10 visitors.

The chairman of the Thai Animal Guardians Association, Roger Lohanan, says his organisation has successfully lobbied other shopping centres and hotels to abandon plans for indoor zoos. But campaigning to close the zoo at Pata has foundered on a lack of legal muscle backing their cause.