An English-language blog post about Hanako, a celebrated elephant at a zoo in Tokyo, has sparked an Internet petition for her freedom — or at least a move to more salubrious surroundings.
The 69-year-old animal was captured from the wild as a youngster and lives without a companion.
While online commenters deplore Hanako’s circumstances, the zoo argues she has good treatment.
“We’re taking care of Hanako with great sensitivity,” said a keeper at Inokashira Park Zoo in the western Tokyo neighborhood of Musashino.
Some visitors to the zoo bridled at the criticism, saying the beast has long been beloved of local residents.
The blog post in question, written last October, said “Japan’s oldest living captive elephant” was transported from Thailand as a calf back in 1949 to “what would become her lifetime prison.”
“Totally alone in a small, barren, cement enclosure with absolutely no comfort or stimulation provided, she just stood there almost lifeless, like a figurine.” An accompanying photograph showed a sad-looking Hanako.
The message spread quickly on Facebook and other social media.
An online petition for moving Hanako to an elephant sanctuary or a new, more commodious enclosure where she can interact with other elephants has collected some 300,000 signatures.
Media outside Japan have got involved: “Many Thai netizens also expressed the view that Hanako should be taken out of Japan and brought back to Thailand,” reported The Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper based in the Thai capital.
Hidemasa Hori, who is responsible for rearing and displaying the animals at Inokashira Park Zoo, said he wants people to understand what lengths the zookeepers go to.
Every day, keepers make special rice balls combined with wheat and peeled bananas so that Hanako, who has only one tooth, can digest them easily, according to Hori, 50.
Hori acknowledges that in an ideal world elephants should be kept on soil, but he says it is very expensive to maintain such an environment, and a small public zoo like Inokashira Park Zoo, which is mostly run with taxpayer money, cannot afford it.
While acknowledging those who say it is a shame Hanako is alone — critics note that elephants in the wild live in herds — Hori opposes transporting her to a different facility. Given her age, traveling would be a big burden, Hori said, and a change of environment could cause her enormous stress.
As an example of how sensitive Hanako is, Hori said even the noise of a tree branch breaking causes her to stand stock-still.
The elephant’s popularity can be gauged from the reactions of visitors. One recent Sunday at the zoo, a crowd of onlookers erupted in cheers as Hanako drank water with her trunk.
Keiko Yamada, a 67-year-old resident of the Tokyo district of Mitaka was visiting the zoo with her 5-year-old grandson. “I also came to see Hanako when this boy’s father was small,” she said nostalgically.
Others said the elephant is an important local institution.
“Hanako is the symbol of this zoo,” said Emi Izumiya, 63, from Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. “Many would be saddened if Hanako is gone.”