By Joseph Hincks
When a shortage of work in the agricultural sector prompted newly qualified veterinarian Bando Gen to accept a job offer at Hokkaido’s Asahiyama’s zoo, the situation did not look promising. Zoos in Ueno and Yokohama had bought in exotic animals such as sea otters and koalas – the epitome of kawaii (cute) in popular culture – but Japan’s northernmost zoo in the city of Asahiyama, with its dilapidated enclosures and offering of mainly domestic animals struggled to compete.
The first year of Dr. Bando’s tenure, there were only 10 staff members; visitor numbers were falling and rumors of bankruptcy abounded. “We didn’t have any budget. At the end of the year we barely had enough money left over to feed the animals,” he said.
But for Bando – who as a child had filled his mother’s house with grasshoppers collected in transparent food containers, and nursed parakeets the local vet was unable to treat – the problems at Asahiyama went beyond economics.
As Peace Boat sailed from Yokohama to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, Bando delivered a series of lectures on the transition from standardized enclosures towards behavioral-based exhibits at Asahiyama Zoo, an approach that would later be emulated across Japan. He also discussed the concept of ongaeshi (giving back) to zoo animals through the conservation of their wild counterparts’ native habitats.
Underlying all this, he said, was the need for humans to re-evaluate their relationship with animals.
Zoos first appeared in Japan at the time of the Meiji restoration, as one of many imported western ideas in an era characterized by the governments’ drive to modernize the archipelago.
Historically, the parameters of human/animal relations had been drawn by Buddhist and Shinto philosophies – the latter of which saw animals as having spirits in a landscape populated by forest and mountain gods. But as zoos’ popularity increased following the Second World War, a new way of regarding animals emerged, in which species could come in and out of fashion.
At Asahiyama Zoo, and others across Japan, visitors were driven by sentimentality and the novelty of new species arrivals. New animals were big draws, but little thought was given to how to appropriately house them. “I didn’t like the way people looked at the zoo. We didn’t want visitors to the zoo to see the animals as cute, or rare,” said Bando.
Although inappropriate enclosures were certainly not unique to Japan, Bando said that they were particularly widespread in the country.
The attitude towards animals in zoos was, according to Bando, also applied to wild domestic species. When numbers of the Hokkaido sika deer spiked due to the extinction of predatory wolves in Japan, warmer winters, and an increased prevalence of lawns and unfenced pastureland, they went from being considered cute, rare emblems of Hokkaido to a destructive species. Despite efforts to control their population, sika deer continue to strip forests and damage agricultural lands. ”When we are only concerned with economic losses and traffic accidents we destroy nature and more animals are labeled as destructive,” Bando said.
Over a period of more than 15 years, Asahiyama Zoo constructed an array of unique animal viewing facilities in an attempt to enable visitors to see animals in the way that Bando and his colleagues did. Instead of trendy species and novelty shows, the zoo focused on building habitats that showcased the natural behavior of the animals under its care: a glass tunnel underneath the penguin enclosure allowed observation of the birds’ underwater flight; a vertical cylindrical tube through which seals could swim provided a 360-degree view; visitors could watch emperor penguin walks in winter, or see polar bears from the perspective of a hunted seal.
The changes heralded a new era of prosperity for the zoo. In 2007, more than three million people visited, a number only surpassed by Ueno Zoo in Japan’s capital.
But changing the way tourists saw zoo animals was only the first part of a larger initiative. “The enjoyment and emotion visitors feel when they see animals in the zoo should somehow benefit those same animals living in their native environment,” Bando said.
Through various fund-raising programs, the Asahiyama Zoo supports the Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT), a Malaysia-Japan collaboration on which Bando serves as an executive board member. A fundraising drive on Peace Boat raised $1,200 for the NGO. More....