I am ambivalent towards zoos. Part of me - the inquisitive, endlessly fascinated side - loves zoos. Seeing these creatures up close and personal, watching them move, eat and sleep at a proximity I could never experience in the wild is wondrous. Stop for a second and think about what it means: standing a few meters from a polar bear. Try this on the ice and it’ll be the last thing you ever do. Watching penguins swimming: in the Antarctic you’d need a submarine or some heavy-duty diving gear.
But I, like the animals, can never quite forget the bars, can never escape the feeling that it’s all fake, that although this massive creature is a polar bear, it’s not a ‘real’ polar bear, since it was bred in captivity, has never caught a fleeing seal and has as much experience of Arctic survival as I.
So I leave zoos ambivalent: exhilarated yet disappointed. I want to learn more about these magnificent beings, and I want to unlock all the cages and send them home. If it weren’t for zoos I would never see a cheetah, but I hate that the cheetah is in the zoo.
Higashiyama Dobutsuen in Nagoya is a much simpler proposition. Of all the zoos - nay, of all the tourist places I’ve been in the world - Higashiyama Zoo must rank bottom, last, worst. It exists to act as an example to other zoos.
Some of the animals are kept in appalling conditions. The elephant may be the largest land mammal but its home is no bigger than that of the average unmarried salaryman. The walrus is well known for its blubberous bulk yet it wallows in a few feet of muddy water. A plurality of primates scream rage at the indignity of their cage while greater apes point and laugh. The elephant vents frustration on a chained tyre - his only furniture - surely imagining it to be his captors. As for the polar bear, well ‘cabin fever’ doesn’t cover it. Hours he stands, feet rooted to the spot, head swinging sharply from side to side, for all the world like a tramp in the park, blasted on One Cup, or an extra from a zombie film: "Bear of the Dead." A few animals seem happy enough, but many look like Guantanamo detainees, particularly the big cats in their battery farm rows.
When I write these articles, I always try to be balanced, to give the objective good and bad, as well as my personal response. What can I say to balance this? It’s conveniently located on the subway system? It’s not too expensive? There are a lot of vending machines? It’s not enough. Quite simply, don’t go there.
There’s talk of the zoo undergoing a dramatic makeover. It’s notorious as the kind of zoo Donald Rumsfeld would create, and achieved international recognition as the only zoo in the world with green polar bears (algae left untreated). However I’m skeptical. I predict any money will be spent on improving facilities for the paying guests, rather than for the residents. Maybe a bigger gift shop and more vending machines. Of course, in this economic climate, I doubt any money will be spent at all. Recessions don’t just affect humans; even penguins get credit-crunched.© Japan Today