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.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bunny Island

It's Sunday afternoon and I've finally decided to stop procrastinating about writing. Neglect has practically turned my poor blog into little more than a travelogue of late, and it's not meant to be just a travelogue. There's lots of good stuff going unreported. So I've got to catch up.

First up! Our trip to Okunoshima Island about... a month ago. Actually, more than a month ago.

Okunoshima Island is a small island tucked away in the Seto Inland Sea near Tadanoumi, which is an hour away by bus. Then it's a 20-minute ferry ride to the island. We invited along our friend Katie and went on a beautiful sunny day in late September.

Joe pretends to be a cute Japanese girl on the ferry. Awww!

I'd been dying to go ever since I'd heard about this strange island with two nicknames: Bunny Island and Poison Gas Island.

During World War II, the Japanese used a factory to produce poison gas on the island. The gases were tested on rabbits (poor, poor wittle wabbits...). After the war, U.S. forces destroyed the factory and the rabbits were set free. Since then, they've taken over the island, hopping around unmolested and happily procreating. Now, there are bunnies everywhere. A Poison Gas Museum was built to educate the public about the sordid history of the island, and the museum, combined with the booming bunny population, attracts plenty of visitors to the island. As a result, the "wild" bunnies have become quite friendly and tame.

So you can see why I was giddy with excitement to go to this place crawling with cute and cuddly rabbits. I went armed with two plastic bags, one stuffed with cabbage and the other full of carrot sticks. Those rabbits were going to get an early Thanksgiving!

After disembarking from the ferry, we set off down the road and through a tunnel to the nearby factory ruins, where we encountered our first rabbits. They were cautiously curious, but after a minute they hopped up to us looking for some food.

The factory itself was totally creepy. With its broken windows and crumbling concrete covered in ivy, the factory is the perfect image of a haunted building. If this place were in America, I've no doubt there would be 1,000 different ghost stories involving this place.

Circling around the island, we saw some other deteriorating buildings.

The poison gas storehouse

The barracks where the soldiers slept

The museum was small — two rooms — but I found it intensely interesting.

We learned that the poison gas factory actually opened in 1929. Because of the recession, the military had no problem recruiting area residents to work in the factory, but workers were never told what the factory was producing. Questions and complaints were not tolerated.

According to the museum's brochure, various kinds of toxic gases, signal barrels, pipes and balloon bombs were produced at the plant during the war, but priority was given to the production of mustard gas. The ingredients of these gases adhere to soil, plants and houses and then slowly evaporate. They are highly toxic. When they stick to the skin, the gases cause severe pain and produce blistering after two or three hours. When inhaled, the gas causes injuries throughout the body.

Scary stuff, right? It gets even more alarming when you consider that the workers in the factory didn't have adequate protective gear. They worked completely covered in rubber uniforms, anti-poison gas masks, gloves and long boots.

But it wasn't enough. The gas still managed to penetrate the gear, causing injuries to their skin, eyes, throat and lungs. They developed pneumonia and other conditions. To treat skin diseases, they tried to neutralize the poison by burning a mixture of potassium manganate and vinegar, but there were no treatments for the other conditions they suffered, except, the brochure said, "a nourishing food." How would you like that? Oh, you've been poisoned by mustard gas! Well, have some of this chicken soup, it'll fix ya right up!

Workers in the factory

Getting sick working in the mustard gas department would earn you a transfer. To the tear gas department. However, things weren't all peachy there either, as you can imagine. Workers there suffered from all sorts of eye injuries caused by the hydrochloric acid gas used during the production process. There were eye-washing apparatuses in the workers' waiting room, but to use them, the assistance of a non-worker was needed. And of course, everyone around was a worker. "Thus tragedy ensued," says the brochure.

A wall in the back room of the museum was covered with stomach-turning photos of gas victims, which showed how dangerous these gases are.

The guy on the right is a young soldier suffering from severe skin burns days after exposure to mustard gas on the battlefield.

This is a baby boy affected by a mustard gas attack in Sardasht, Iran in 1987. He is now a young man in his 20s suffering from severe respiratory problems and is not expected to live into his 50s.

After the war, many of the former factory workers died. They developed breathing difficulties and chronic bronchitis and digestive problems. Later, the Japanese government began assisting the disabled factory workers, and continues to assist them today.

It wasn't until 1984 that it became widely known that Japan developed chemical weapons. Japan went to great lengths to conceal the poison gas production during and after the war. In fact, one reason the island was chosen for poison gas production was its isolation. Okunoshima Island was removed from maps, and trains that ran along the nearby coast had to cover the windows with blinds so that riders couldn't see the island.

Today, the island has been developed into a National Vacation Village and is a public health resort.

So the island has gone from a place of death and suffering to a health resort. What a dichotomy between morbid and tranquil.

Indeed, after we finished touring the museum, we went on to explore the rest of the island and camp out in a couple of the bunnies' favorite hang-outs. It's really a beautiful place.

View from the top of the hill

At one point, I walked toward a grassy area near the woods that appeared to be empty. Suddenly, about a dozen bunnies noticed my presence and emerged from the forest, literally bounding out to see me. They eagerly surrounded me in hopes of food. It reminded me of how I felt when I was 10 years old and I'd come home from school to find my new cat, Oreo, waiting at the front door for me. Or I imagined this is how a father in the "good ole days" felt when he'd return home from work and all his children would exclaim happily and run to him. I just felt so loved. All these cute, furry animals hurrying up to me full of excitement!

I fed them cabbage 'til they nearly exploded.

Whatchoo lookin' at?

A bunny-on-bunny bath (click pic to see his tongue)

A shy bunny hides under the bench.

They were very eager to be fed, but not so keen on being petted. If I tried to touch them, they'd usually run away. But I did manage to almost coax one of them into my lap. This little guy was almost there, but when I tried to give his behind a boost he was gone in a flash.

All in all, a very worthwhile trip. I fully support Japan transforming other islands into giant petting zoos. I'd like the next one to be overrun with pugs.