The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on March 11 affected the animals in Ueno Zoo in Tokyo in both negative and positive ways.
The most negative impact was the death, on April 16, of a female hippo named Satsuki, who succumbed to inflammation that spread through her body after she injured a front leg in the quake’s immediate aftermath.
Toshiaki Inoue, the keeper who looked after Satsuki and her partner, Jiro, said that Satsuki was in the enclosure’s main pool when the temblor hit at 2:46 p.m.
“Satsuki looked frozen in the water, which had waves in it caused by the earthquake,” Inoue said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “I believe she was very shocked.”
When Inoue called Satsuki and Jiro to let them enter their “room,” he said Satsuki approached the stairs going up to it from the pool but missed her footing.
“I heard a big crashing sound when her leg banged down to a step below the one she’d meant to stand on,” Inoue said. “She had never done that before.”
Afterward, although Satsuki climbed the stairs and entered the room, she didn’t eat, and neither did Jiro. Instead, they both just sank into the smaller pool inside their room and stayed there until the evening, when Jiro ate some grass and bean curd lees — but Satsuki ate nothing and stayed in the small pool.
The following day, March 12, Satsuki managed to get out of the pool, and though she was dragging her injured left foreleg she entered the outdoor pool. Inoue said it was less painful for the 2.5-ton hippo to be in water, where much of her weight was taken off her feet.
But Satsuki then stayed in the pool — apparently unable to get out — until early April, and Inoue cared for her there by throwing balls of grass, bean curd lees and painkillers into her mouth.
After spending almost three weeks in the water there, Satsuki seemed to recover a bit, and she got out of the pool. But that, it seems was a false dawn, and a few days later she was back in the main pool, with Inoue again trying to feed her though he said she was steadily losing her appetite.
Finally, on April 16, another keeper found Satsuki submerged and motionless in the pool. She had died 34 days short of her 40th birthday.
“I think Satsuki could have lived for another four or five years if she hadn’t damaged her leg,” Inoue said, adding that Jiro’s appetite fell off after Satsuki died, though it is slowly returning.
In contrast to the sensitive hippos, Ueno Zoo’s new pair of giant pandas that arrived from China in February reacted in a lively way to the main earthquake and its aftershocks. Named Ri Ri and Shin Shin, the male and female pandas, respectively, had been scheduled to make their public debut on March 22, and on March 11 their keepers were preparing them and themselves for the big event and the media circus that would inevitably attend it.
Hiroshi Kuramochi, one of the keepers, said that after the quake he saw the two pandas, which were then in separate rooms, both running around and repeatedly hitting the walls and windows.
But he said that a Chinese keeper, who was accompanying the pandas, explained that the animals had experienced the magnitude-8.0 earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, when they were in the panda center there.
So the Chinese keeper told me, “They will be alright soon,” Kuramochi said.
In fact Shin Shin, the female, stopped running around after about 10 minutes, though Ri Ri kept it up for a couple of hours until almost 5 p.m., he said. After that, they resumed eating bamboo leaves as usual.
However, when a series of aftershocks occurred through March, the pandas didn’t start running around again — though they did pause briefly from eating bamboo leaves.
“The calm attitude of the pandas and the Chinese keeper encouraged me, because I was anxious after the March 11 earthquake, which was the biggest I had ever experienced,” Kuramochi said.
Elsewhere in the zoo, other animals also clearly reacted to that megaquake — with some of its western lowland gorillas, at least, appearing to have closer ties now than before the traumatic event.
One of Ueno’s two groups of these great apes is led by a male named Haoko. His group number five animals: his partner, Momoko; their baby, Komomo; and two other females in his “harem.”
Yuji Kitada, one of the zoo’s gorilla keepers, recalled that he was preparing food for them behind their enclosure when the quake hit. Straight after it stopped, he rushed to the field where his charges were hanging out.
“There I found Momoko holding Komomo in her arms, sitting on the top of a tall stump,” Kitada said. “Haoko was sitting on the ground and releasing extremely strong body odor.” Kitada explained that male gorillas do that when they are scared, surprised or excited.
After doing a head count there, in a separate enclosure and in the gorillas’ pens, Kitada said he reported their safety to his boss.
Meanwhile, however, Takeshi Iuchi, one of the zoo’s senior officials, was able to watch as Haoko climbed on the stump and put his arms around Momoko and Komomo. “Haoko looked as if he was protecting the mother and the child,” he said.
Kitada said he was pleased that Haoko had shown an affectionate attitude as the dominant gorilla.
According to Juichi Yamagiwa, a professor at Kyoto University who is an expert on gorillas, earthquakes rarely occur in the habitat of the western lowland gorilla. But he said by email that he had seen some mountain gorillas holding each other in the Virunga Mountains that straddle the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda in central Africa when a volcano erupted there in 1982 and the ground started shaking.
At that time, Yamagiwa said he also observed male gorillas drumming their chests — a behavior that males typically exhibit when they encounter enemies or threats.
“I guess the earthquake (on March 11) was so fierce that the gorillas were too scared to drum their chests or shout,” Yamagiwa said.
While Haoko didn’t drum his chest either, Kitada said that since then he has appeared more paternal than before, and has stayed near Momoko and Komomo more often than before the temblor. Also, Komomo, a 19-month-old female, now touches Haoko more often than before.
“I have the impression that the earthquake made the relationship of Haoko and his family closer,” Kitada said.
In the wild, mother gorillas will not normally leave their offspring alone with their huge, so-called “silverback,” fathers until they are 2 or 3 years old, Kitada explained.
Also at that time the mothers stop breast feeding and can get pregnant again.
“Because Haoko started playing the role of father, it’s more likely that he and Momoko will now have another baby,” the keeper said.
If that happens, the March 11 quake may be responsible for new life sooner than expected in Ueno Zoo, not just the tragic loss of Satsuki the hippo. Every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes.