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Tigers and lions and bears, oh my!

by Thomas Dillon

I have always enjoyed a good zoo.

. . . Ah, now that’s a compelling lead!

To start, it offers a pale echo of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” stating that she has always relied on the kindness of strangers — right before they cart her to the nuthouse. The words ring with craziness and desperation.

They also spur me to consider other small confessions that might reveal even quirkier sides to my personality. Like . . .

I have always taken my coffee black. I have always slept with my socks on. I have always been amused by the name “Peter O’Toole.”

And — it’s true — I like zoos. Maybe because they allow me to glimpse nature under my own terms. For example, I would much rather watch a tiger pacing in a cage than see one free and launching itself at my neck.

I also appreciate the educational value of a zoo. For I can think of no better way to teach wild animals how miserable it is to live with humans.

I like zoos so much that I spent my very first Japanese holiday at one. The date was Sept. 15, 1974, Respect for the Aged Day, and I figured a nice stroll in the Ueno Zoo would be a fine way to relax.

Too bad that most of Tokyo was thinking the same. They might as well have called it “Respect for Pandas Day,” for the famed Ueno pandas were drawing people in droves.

Alas, Japanese zoos have since hit leaner times. For years the number of visitors continued to drop in a trend that seemed irreversible. For how could mere capybaras and emus, no matter how charming, compete with new and exciting contrivances like video games and cell phones?

Clearly the Japanese zoo world needed a hero.

And the hero has arrived. From the distant north, a small heretofore unheralded zoo has almost single-handedly put the “zoooooom” back in the Japanese zoo business.

All Japan is now howling like coyotes over little Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa. So I had to go see and add a few yaps myself.

And what a cool zoo! “Cool” being just what you expect from a zoo in Hokkaido.

Where the animals do indeed seem more active in the lower temps. While that may help the overall magic, the zoo’s greater enchantment comes from interactive viewing areas, in which the animals can study your movements from up close.

One such area is the penguin zone.

Personally, I have never been enamored with penguins. They overdress and they waddle, plus they have beady eyes. They remind me too much of banking executives. And while I would pay a pretty penny to see a bunch of banking execs being slop fed with raw fish, penguins somehow lack the same attraction.

Except at the Asahiyama Zoo, where the zone includes a walk-through aquarium, where penguins waddle no more. They dive, swim and zip through the water like they were wind-up toys.

And outside they shuffle right up close. I had one fellow come up and follow my finger everywhere with his head — up, down, left, right, in circles — like he was in a trance.

“Look at this stupid bird!” I called to my wife. “He just can’t stop!”

And if the place hadn’t closed for the day and kicked me out, I’d probably still be at it.

Seals and polar bears have their own up-close tanks as well. But neither group really zips. Instead, the seals go, “whoosh,” and the polar bears go “kersplash.” Trust me. While I know nothing about animals, I am an expert with verbs.

Yet, to me the star of stars was the orangutan.

Orangutans are one of the world’s most misunderstood animals. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, once cast an orangutan as the killer in a murder mystery set in Paris. And I often hear orangutans are mistaken for newspaper writers. And vice versa.

Yet writers cannot — and again, you must trust me — dangle from the high trapeze like the Asahiyama orangutan. At least not for a mere cup of fruit. (For two, maybe, but only if spiked.)

Yet, what a show! And what a swinger! My digital camera almost exploded with all the shots I took.

The Asahiyama Zoo began its interactive era about a dozen years ago as a way to reverse the decline in visitors. Mission accomplished, as the Little Zoo That Could is now running almost neck-and-neck in attendance with the much larger, Tokyo-based Ueno Zoo.

Furthermore, even though the Asahiyama Zoo is now Japan’s “in” place to go and even though I visited on a Sunday during the heart of summer, meaning vacation-freed kids were crawling everywhere, at no time did the place feel crowded.

Except at the gift shop. Which was jam-packed with souvenir-hungry tourists.

I didn’t even try to enter. Reasoning . . . it’s a jungle in there.

Instead I chose the more civilized option — remaining out in the zoo.

Where I have always relied on the kindness of wild animals.