One of the interesting factoids accompanying the escaped-penguin story that delighted the media for the last three months is that Japan has more penguins in captivity than any other country. Tokyo Sea Life Park, the facility from which the male Humboldt penguin in question made his break, has 135. The appeal is obvious: Penguins are cute and easy to handle. No one became upset when the bird managed to get out of his enclosure and into Tokyo Bay. In fact, a certain type of commentator dominated social media, cheering the errant penguin on and lamenting his eventual capture. A few of these boosters named him Steve, as in actor Steve McQueen, the star of “The Great Escape.” He was a rebel.
The escape of another species of wild animal made the news on April 20, when two female employees of the Hachimantai Bear Farm in Akita Prefecture were killed by bears that had climbed over the wall of their enclosure by means of a pile of leftover snow. Six were shot and killed on the premises and it was eventually determined they were the only ones that escaped, but at the time, since the number wasn’t immediately known, local authorities warned nearby residents to be on the lookout for, as the Mainichi Shimbun reported it, “bears on the run.” They were criminals.
The two narratives couldn’t be more different in tone, but they conveyed a similar message by dint of the verb that unified them. “Escape” implied that the animals were leaving a situation adverse to their dispositions. The penguin and the six bears were simply doing what they were supposed to do, but because we live in a world defined by humanity their instinctual actions attracted unusual attention. Such concern became ludicrous last week when a bunch of squirrels escaped from Tokyo’s Inokashira Park Zoo into the surrounding park. If the media hadn’t covered the frantic effort to catch the squirrels would anyone have noticed, or, for that matter, cared?
In his essay on zoos in the June issue of Harper’s, David Samuels says that we live in an epoch geologists have named the Anthropocene. In this age, “We should properly understand nature as a sequence of enclosures like parks and zoos,” which essentially protect nonhuman life from the effects of human existence. Animals in the so-called wild are actually at the mercy of a new world that didn’t form them. Once these creatures are in zoos or aquariums or safari parks, humans can re-create an environment more conducive to their biological makeup but contrary to what can only be called their essence as free beings.
In the case of the bears, the cognitive dissonance attendant to this dynamic can be deafening, since the rationale for their captivity is commercial. According to Wikipedia there are 10 bear farms (kuma bokujō) in Japan. Visitors to Hachimantai paid admission for the opportunity to feed the 38 bears from a distance. The bears internalized this routine and would thus “perform” for the customers by begging in a manner that could be considered either humorous or pathetic depending on one’s sensibility.
Footage of these performances were often aired on animal-related TV programs or variety shows specializing in home videos, and invariably they were presented as being cute. Context is everything, because animal-rights groups will utilize the same footage as evidence that the bears have been perverted by their environment, and surround it with other visuals showing the animals pacing fitfully in front of walls and tearing one another apart in frustration.
On June 9, the owner of the Hachimantai Bear Farm was arrested by Akita prefectural police on suspicion of causing the two employee deaths because he didn’t do enough to prevent the bears from escaping. His treatment of the bears didn’t enter into it. He was already having money problems and said he would probably close the farm. The prefecture is now trying to figure out what to do with the remaining animals. It costs a lot of money to feed and take care of them, and if no other facilities agree to take in the bears by the fall they will be destroyed.
There is absolutely no discussion in the media or elsewhere that the bears might be returned to nature, presumably because they were never “in nature” to begin with. Their dependence on humans would likely cause them to seek out civilization when they get hungry, and as we occasionally see on the news, wild bears in Japan that come into contact with humans are almost always killed. Though Japanese brown bears and black bears are classified as being “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, thousands are shot every year as a result of contact with people. In 2005, such encounters resulted in 4,679 bear deaths and three human deaths.
Animal-welfare groups are soliciting donations to keep the bears alive until they can find homes, and according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun five facilities have expressed some degree of willingness to accept a limited number. The main obstacle is another attribute of the Anthropocene. Hachimantai has a number of breeds of brown bear, including Kodiak from Alaska and Ezo from Hokkaido, but some may be interbreeds. According to the Tokyo Shimbun, zoos avoid animals of indeterminate bloodlines because one of the main purposes of a zoo is conservation. Acquiring animals that don’t represent pure lines is considered “inappropriate academically.” In the Harper’s essay Samuels traces this mode of thought back to Madison Grant, one of the founders of the Bronx Zoo in New York, whose obsession with “pure full-blooded stock” extended to humans. He was a clinical racist.
Though one could argue that such an approach has value in terms of conservation, it tends to have at best a secondary appeal to people who visit zoos, and zoos need visitors to survive, so operators supplement the edifying with the entertaining. Tokyo Sea Life Park is now holding a contest to name its recaptured penguin, which presently is known as #337. If the winning name is Steve, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.