Hanako, a female elephant at the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo, died in May at the age of 69. The news was widely reported because Hanako was a famous fixture of the zoo, where, according to then-Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, she “gave dreams and hopes to children,” a strange observation if you review Hanako’s long life.

A friendship gift from Thailand to Japanese children in 1949, the elephant did not adapt readily to her new home at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. In fact, she killed two men, one a zookeeper, the other a drunk trespasser. Difficult to control, she was chained up and lost weight. Eventually the zoo transferred Hanako to Inokashira, where the head zookeeper took special care of her.

But while she gained back her weight and “started to show some affection,” the Tokyo Shimbun reported that her unpredictable nature reemerged, requiring she be fed “at a distance.” Last October, an English-language blogger named Ulara Nakagawa started writing posts about Hanako’s atrociously cramped living conditions. She contacted experts in other countries and a petition was circulated to send Hanako back to Thailand, where she could spend the rest of her days in more natural surroundings and be with other elephants, which live in herds. The petition collected 300,000 signatures.

Visitors to the zoo who heard of this plan told the Mainichi Shimbun that Hanako should stay because she brought joy to local residents. Her zookeepers admitted that her living situation was not ideal due to budget constraints, but in any case she was too old to be moved. When Hanako died, Nakagawa wrote that maybe it was for the best, since now the animal was freed from her misery. Local residents wanted the zoo to replace her, even if it seemed obvious that a new elephant would simply inherit Hanako’s unhappy circumstances.

Coincidentally or not, Yahoo News Japan posted a long article on Aug. 17 about the plight of Japanese zoos. Last year, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) made headlines when, at the urging of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), it told members they could no longer buy dolphins captured in the wild, specifically those caught during the infamous “Taiji drive hunts,” thus putting some in a difficult position. The problem was profitability. Most of the facilities affected by the ban were privately owned and operated. Dolphins were their main money-makers.

Yahoo’s story is about public zoos, like Inokashira, so profits are not an issue. Eighty percent of the 89 JAZA member zoos are run by local governments. In terms of number of zoos, Japan is third in the world, after the U.S. and China, but in terms of zoos per capita, Japan is No. 1, despite the fact that attendance has been dropping for more than two decades. It peaked in 1991 at 65 million and is now about 40 million. The main reason is the changing makeup of leisure. From 1960 to 1990, zoos were one of the few reasonably priced recreation activities for families. They were deemed places of entertainment, mainly for children. Now kids have plenty of low-cost things to do.

Municipal zoos operate under the Urban Parks Law, which means their animals are treated the same as other public park property, like benches and playground equipment. A former zookeeper told Yahoo that admission fees for city zoos are purposely kept low in Japan to encourage attendance, and those fees haven’t gone up in line with other consumer prices. Zoos now derive one-third of their budgets from admissions and the rest from tax money, and local assemblies don’t see much point in appropriating more funds for zoos if they’re not attracting people.

As a result, many zoos in Japan are falling apart. Yahoo described one in Komoro, Nagano Prefecture — the fifth oldest zoo in Japan — as having small, dark enclosures with crumbling concrete floors. The zoo doesn’t even have enough money to repair what’s broken.

Some zoos have repurposed their missions. Omuta Zoo in Fukuoka Prefecture has taken the edification route, and allows visitors to observe everything involved in the care of the animals, including health checkups, but attendance has only increased slightly. Larger zoos have used what extra budgets they can scrape together to improve the “environments” of their animals, following the trend in America, where animals live not in cages but rather in “habitats.” A zoo in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, has done this, but it seems to be an exception. For most municipal zoos, space is greatly limited.

Meanwhile, the animals age and die, and as with the dolphin ban, it’s becoming next to impossible for municipal zoos to replace them. According to a July 6 article in the Mainichi, Asian elephants like Hanako cost ¥13 million 20 years ago. Now, the price is ¥35 million. Polar bears went from ¥4 million to ¥60 million; gorillas from ¥3 million to ¥100 million. JAZA’s policy for replacement, reflecting WAZA’s, is to encourage domestic reproduction, which usually requires inter-zoo sharing of animals, and that can be quite expensive too.

As University of Tokyo professor Naoyuki Kinoshita told the newspaper, the “postwar model of the public zoo” as an entertainment venue is no longer tenable when species are becoming endangered. Zoos should “convey the relationship between humans, history and wildlife in a given region,” meaning they should limit themselves to indigenous animals. He recommends all zoos be nationalized.

One thing no one in Japan recommends is that zoos be phased out altogether. Internationally, zoo proponents argue that they are necessary for species preservation and education, but as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” so someday we will have to decide if it’s morally justifiable to confine wild animals for any reason.

Certainly they should not be kept in spaces like the one Hanako endured, but it’s hard to make some people see that. Ulara Nakagawa reacted with pity and horror. Others, secure in their human entitlement and primed to be entertained, were too charmed to acknowledge the tragedy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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