Animal rights activists are accusing a zoo in northern China of putting on elephant shows featuring handstands and martial arts performances.

The official government news agency Xinhua reported the Tianjin Zoo used two Asian elephants in the performances in Shenzhen in May, charging viewers 10 yuan ($1.60) for admission and six times that for taking pictures.

The report said iron stakes were used to convince one elephant to lift its hind legs for a handstand during one performance.

"Stunts like handstands, sitting and kneeling are unnatural for elephants and will cause serious physical and mental harm," Hu Chunmei of the Nature University said.

Zoo officials denied the animals are being mistreated, saying the performances actually are "behavioral training demonstrations."

"We have not employed beating or abuse in the process, and the activity is not profit-driven," a statement by the authority that oversees the zoo said.