Animals are big business in Japan — at least, cute ones are. According to an estimate from Kansai University, Xiang Xiang, the new panda cub at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, has the potential to boost the Tokyo-area economy by ¥26.7 billion over a year. However, not all zoo animals receive the care and attention lavished on the tiny piebald bear.

Japanese zoos run the gamut. While there are some world-class facilities, comfort for the creatures seems to be severely lacking at many establishments. It isn’t unusual to find negative comments on travel websites from international visitors dismayed at cramped enclosures and their listless occupants.

Toshio Tsubota is a professor at Hokkaido University’s Laboratory of Wildlife Biology and Medicine, the first university lab in Japan to specialize in wild animals.

“The standard in Japanese zoos varies from great to terrible,” he says. “I would like to see zoos move from being places merely for people’s entertainment to becoming facilities for promoting conservation and biodiversity, following America and Europe’s lead.”

Amid the boom in international tourism and with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, there are signs that Japan is looking abroad for inspiration in an effort to improve the situation for animals.

Elephants without the room

In 2016, Hanako, Japan’s oldest elephant at the time, was the subject of international controversy when a petition was started to try and have her returned to Thailand. Kept in solitary captivity for over 60 years at Tokyo’s Inokashira Park Zoo, the elephant died the following May.

Attention from the international media was the catalyst for the recently completed “Solitary Elephants in Japan Report,” a comprehensive review of 14 such elephants in zoos around Japan. (Several of the animals in the report have since died from advanced age.)

One of the groups involved in the survey is Zoocheck, a Canada-based international wildlife protection charity established in 1984 to promote and protect the wellbeing of wild animals. As there is no representative in this country, Zoocheck usually partners with like-minded local groups and individuals when engaged in zoo animal welfare work here.

“We helped facilitate that process by enlisting the services of elephant scientist Keith Lindsay and providing some funding. Since that time, we have become more involved in the ‘political’ side of pushing the recommendations in the report,” explains Zoocheck’s director, Rob Laidlaw.

Conservation biologist Lindsay has dedicated his career to the study of elephants and their behavior. For the report, captive elephants in zoos around Japan were observed, with follow-up recommendations for improving the quality of their care. While some zoos were seen to be doing a better job than others in relation to their animals, Lindsay notes there were common areas for concern.

“The management of the elephants seemed to be limited by the opening hours of the zoos and the availability of keeper staff,” he explains. “In all zoos, the elephants were kept in their small indoor stalls from afternoon until mid-morning, 16 to 18 hours every day locked up inside. In nature, elephants spend 16 to 18 hours per day actively moving and foraging. Feeding times were infrequent and many hours apart, totally unlike the continuous, extended foraging in nature.”

Other issues include enclosures that are much too small for such large animals, as well as concrete underfoot in all but a few of the newer zoos. Lindsay says spending all day on such hard ground is very damaging to the elephants’ feet and joints.

“Most of the elephants were solitary, without companions, which is completely unsuitable for a highly sociable, intelligent mammal. Five had been solitary for all the time they had been at the zoo — many decades — while others were alone since the death of their one companion. In two cases, additional elephants were introduced or reintroduced, but the solitary elephant could not get along with them and they were kept separate,” Lindsay says.

Kaori Sakamoto is a Japan-based advocate for zoo animals. Sakamoto assists in disseminating information on animal welfare, and recently translated the “Solitary Elephants” report into Japanese and shared it with the zoos involved. “While it is still early days, some of the zoos have already been making modifications to the care of their elephants, based on the report,” she notes.

Need for legal framework

One of the biggest barriers to significant reform is that no specific laws exist to define the roles of zoos or govern their management.

“There is still no national system of accreditation for zoos and aquariums in Japan, even though they exist for institutions such as museums,” says Yutaka Fukuda, director of Ueno Zoo.

Fukuda also currently holds the role of chairperson of the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums. A total of 151 such institutions are members of JAZA, or roughly half the number in Japan. The majority of public zoos are members. While those belonging to JAZA agree to meet certain conditions, zoos and aquariums that aren’t members may run their facilities as they see fit.

According to Fukuda, some progress towards a national law for zoos has been made in the last few years, albeit slowly. “My predecessor at JAZA initiated activities calling for a ‘national zoo act’ back in 2013,” he says. JAZA is liaising with the Environment Ministry to bring zoos and aquariums under the umbrella of the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

“Although the catalyst for such a move is to expand on the role of zoos in studying and preserving native species, it could also lead to a national system of accreditation and establish a firm set of criteria for zoos,” Fukuda explains. “This will ultimately lead to improvements for all zoos, and a move away from being places just to look at animals to places to learn about them.”

Meanwhile, due to the fact that there is no national law, there are still facilities such as the Meccha Suwareru Zoo, an indoor “petting zoo” that opened in 2014 inside the Pieri Moriyama shopping mall in Shiga Prefecture. Alongside the typical guinea pigs and alpacas, the zoo also displays animals such as an adult male lion and a serval, an African wild cat.

In an email, the zoo’s PR contact stated: “Many children today have few opportunities to interact with animals at close range, and little interest in or appreciation of them. We humans need to show a little more consideration for animals, but since animals can’t speak to us, the only way we can communicate with them is by carefully observing them. Our polices may not align with those of JAZA, but we keep faithful watch over the animals at our zoo.”

Visitors to the zoo have posted comments and photographs on various media about the inadequately small enclosures, with animals tethered inside and unable to move freely. Follow-up emails inviting the zoo to comment about these aspects, as well as the suitability of an indoor mall as a home for wild animals, were not answered.

“There’s a tendency for some Japanese zoos to focus on the handling and feeding of animals, and baby animals in particular. This leads to behavioral and health issues when the animals becomes an adult. Wild animals tend to be viewed like pets,” says Nai Machida, a vet inspector for the Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS) charity. “The media promotion of the ‘cuteness’ (of wild animals) also leads to such misconceptions.”

Laidlaw of Zoocheck points out that Japan is far from alone.

“What you see in Japan, you see in other jurisdictions as well. Having said that, to address many of the animal welfare issues, zoos must change the way they approach enclosure design and animal acquisition. The standard method of operation in most zoos is that when a space is available, they look for an animal to put in it. It should be the other way around,” explains Laidlaw. “In a nutshell, instead of trying to make the animal fit the cage, make the cage fit the animal.”

Lindsay concurs. “Best practice standards across the world — North America, Europe, Australia, Asia — have been steadily improving over the past few decades. Some zoos have recognized that they cannot provide adequate resources for the most demanding species, like elephants, and they have taken the decision to close their exhibits, moving the elephants to sanctuaries or other zoos.”

Japan’s strengths lie with its academic community in the field of wildlife, notably in primatology, according to Lindsay.

“This expertise, along with international connections, offers a great opportunity for Japan’s zoos to draw on advice from within the country on how provide for the basic needs of wild animals held in captivity.”

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