Friday, October 31, 2008

Asa Zoo: more depressing than delightful

An underfed rhino. Poor rhino.

Seizing a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, Joe and I took a trip to mingle with the wildlife at the Hiroshima City Asa Zoo.

I'd been wanting to go to the zoo here ever since I heard that one of its residents is a bear famous for twirling baseball bats like a baton. I thought that might be kind of neat to see.

It was a bittersweet trip. Knowing that Asa Zoo is a small zoo, I didn't have grand expectations, but I was unprepared for just how shabby it would be. Some parts of the zoo didn't look maintained at all, with dirty and peeling paint, rampant weeds and overgrown grass, and generally scummy conditions. It made me sorry for the animals and sad that the city apparently doesn't take much pride in this great asset. And angry that the Japanese don't respect these exotic animals enough to care for them better.

The enclosure directly in front of the entrance was filled with dozens of baboons. It was entertaining to watch them all darting around the enclosure, but I couldn't help but think there were way too many baboons crammed into that space. It really stunk. Some of them were letting out loud, alarming screams because they were being chased aggressively by other baboons all around the enclosure. A lot of them had large bloody gashes on their bodies from fighting with each other.

There was one neat part to that exhibit, though. There was a little building next to the exhibit. It had a glass wall with a hole in it and a chain running through so that visitors could play tug of war with the baboons. The chain had been rigged up to a device in the enclosure that would spit out a piece of food if the baboon pulled the chain past a certain point. The baboons were happy to play tug with a delighted little boy there, pausing every few moments to turn and pick up a food pellet. It was cute.

After we got tired of smelling the baboons, we continued on to see the flamingos, which also stunk. The pools of water in their area looked pretty grimy.

From there it was on around the curve to the zebras and giraffes and ostriches. The zebras looked alright but the giraffes didn't seem to have much space and some of the ostriches were half bald. They literally had large patches with no feathers. I wondered if that was normal.

The elephant exhibit attracted a lot of attention because a trainer was having the elephants perform tricks for the crowd. The baby elephant sat on a stool. The big elephant was mostly hidden in a pit in the back, but he stuck his head out and played the harmonica for everyone.

Is it weird that animals in a zoo are made to perform? I mean, I know we see dolphins perform at Sea World... but other animals at a regular zoo? It seems wrong. (Really, the dolphins performing seems wrong too but I like to think that they're playful and kind of enjoy it. I hope.)

One exhibit I found intriguing was the camels. These camels had two humps, but they didn't appear hard. This one camel's humps kept flopping back and forth. Weird! I never knew they could do that. I wondered if that was normal, so I went googling to research it and found that the humps don't actually hold water, as is commonly believed. They are huge stores of fat. As the body uses up the stored fat, the humps become flabby. According to this totally random Web site, "The size of a camel's hump helps determine a camel's health, food sources, and overall well-being." And the Library of Congress Web site says that "With proper food and rest the hump will return to normal." Hmmmm.

The petting zoo was enjoyable. There were lots of pigs and sheep and goats and chickens wandering around. Check out this goat that was sleepily standing, still as a statue.

Her stomach was bulging waaaay out. Maybe she's pregnant?

The birds were probably my favorite part of the zoo. I realized later that most of the pictures I took at the zoo were of birds. There were just so many cute and colorful ones!

Numerous parrots...

A beautiful blue peacock... She wasn't spreading her feathers, but I thought just the color of her body was stunning.

Some very playful penguins...

These super cool ducks...

Another of the zoo's attractions is Claude, the famous resident black bear. Claude is famous in Japan for his ability to twirl bats and sticks. His pen is filled with long wooden objects to encourage him to perform for visitors.

Unfortunately he must not have been feeling too playful while we were there because he never picked up a stick, despite all the cameras and video cameras focused on him. But here's a video I found on YouTube:

Next up: a wild boar. Japan has a problem with wild boars. They live in the mountains, so you have to be mindful that you may run into one if you're out hiking. Boars are big pests because they like to come down from the mountains and raid gardens and farms for food.

It was tough to get good pictures of a lot of animals because they were completely enclosed in a chain link pen. My camera kept focusing on the fence instead of the animals, which was a bummer when it came to the big cats since I think they are some of the most majestic animals. I felt really sorry for the tiger. She was stuck in this cage and did not have enough space to do anything except pace back and forth.

The lions had a lot more space, though, and I got this shot of them... and their lunch!

The greatest part had to be this quirky warning sign cautioning visitors that the animals might spray. Leave it to the Japanese to come up with such a cute warning sign.

There were also spraying warnings on the tigers...

And yes, even the rhinos!

I had no idea rhinos could spray. Now that would be a helluva story to tell wouldn't it? Yeaaaah, dude, remember that time you got sprayed by the rhino, har har har!!!

But really... why are the enclosures even designed in a way that this sort of mishap could be possible?

Overall, it was an interesting afternoon. Some parts of the zoo were great. But too many parts weren't. Instead of leaving with a warm and fuzzy feeling, I just left feeling a bit melancholy. We won't go back.


Anonymous said...

A) You might like to read the Asa Zoo homepage and news items. Asa Zoo is the JAZGA studbook keeper for black rhino and has been breeding these for yonker years. Before you judge body condition on a rhino as underfed, I suggest you study a little more. You obviously have no clue whatsoever.

B) You might like to read the Hiroshima city council blog and Masterplan re. the zoo. They do invest in the zoo and have upgraded exhibits substantially ...

The only thing you are right on is that it is a typical E.Asian zoo and animal welfare has not yet gone beyond behavioral enrichment into wider open spaces and more naturalistic exhibits for exotic land wildlife (in sealife exhibits Japan is unsurpassed).

So, before you slam - as an outsider - and be damned, sigh a sigh of relief, get into Shinto, respect your host country, get into the minds of the Japanese (Asians think differently than us westerners, really) and read a litte more.

Thank you,


Gail said...

Hi J.B.,
I just call it as I see it. To an outsider looking in, there's no question whatsoever that the zoo looks awfully shabby. I don't think it's disrespecting my host country to say so — unfortunately living in a place you see the good and the bad, and not everything I observe about Japan can be good 100% of the time. It would be nice to know more about the zoo, though I was able to find little on the Web in English, and though I am studying Japanese it takes quite a long time to become fluent in reading the written language. If you have some Web links to share that could enlighten me, please do. It's good to know that the government is investing more in the zoo — though if what I observed represented a "substantial upgrade" from the past, then that really is truly sad. If the government is at present starting to devote more resources to the zoo, clearly it's because the zoo sorely needs it. As for that rhino - just because the zoo's been breeding it for a long time doesn't mean it's getting world-class care, but I admittedly am no expert on rhino care. I'm just making an observation that it appears to be underfed, and if I wonder about that, no doubt other visitors do as well. I wasn't writing a research paper on this thing after all, just a short account of what I witnessed at the zoo. So relax, and if you can share some English resources to help shine some light on these issues, please do.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the author . The zoo does seem bad & I feel the worst for the poor camels & that monkey with a huge gash . The animals looked underfed & unhealthy . I would never want to see animals like that .

Anonymous said...

Just visited yesterday, nothing has changed. It's actually one of the worst things I've paid 500yen for since I started living in Hiroshima. I also noticed that it seemed the animals lived in crappy confinements and seemed to not be well-taken care of.

And just because someone thinks differently from you, doesn't make what they do right, or wrong. In this case, Asa Zoo is a depressing environment, with animals who appear to be malnourished and forgotten about. I wonder where the money the park makes goes to, after all, everything in it is at least $5 (US equivalent) or more.

Just because it's in Japan doesn't excuse it from criticism. Moral relativists should find a cliff and fall off.

chessa said...

I liked the article on Claude the bear.I have seen him on youtube and enjoyed watching him play.I am even kind of relieved that he did not play when you were there,Hate to think he was forced to perform for an audience

Ben Bernard said...

I have visited many zoos and aquaria in Japan and the conditions are shockingly bad.
J.B says this is because the Japanese practice Shintoism. I am even more shocked.
No matter what your religion is you do not have the right to take animals from their natural environment and put them in small cages with nothing to do.
Anyway I thought Shintoism was being at one with nature, perhaps J.B. would like to join the animals in the zoo.