Today’s post is not a happy post at all.
Our visit to Ueno Zoo was a horrible experience. I would never want anyone else to visit it and I would never go back. Here’s why.
Japan’s oldest Zoo: a disturbing history
Ueno Zoo (or ‘Onshi Ueno Dobutsuen’ in Japanese) was first opened on March 20th, 1882. It’s 14.3 hectare (or 35 acre) grounds were originally the estate of the Imperial Family but were bestowed to the Tokyo municipal government in 1924 (along with Ueno Park) on the day of Crown Prince Hirohito’s wedding.
It’s first ‘hiccup’ was on July 25th 1936. Zoo keepers noticed that a black leopard, a recent gift from Siam (Thailand), was missing from her cage. The police and military were alerted and a large-scale search was initiated. Within 13 hours the leopard was found, cowering in a sewer manhole close the zoo, and was returned to her cage. Despite no deaths or injuries occurring the incident made an impression on Tokyo residents and contributed to later fears that animals would escape their cages.
During World War II Ueno Zoo was ordered by the military to ‘dispose of’ it’s most dangerous animals as the public feared that an air raid would set the animals loose in the city. Additionally, food water and other resources were becoming scarce and could no longer be used to keep the larger animals alive.
Sadly this was not an uncommon occurrence in WWII and similar scenes were played out at zoos in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Wuppertal, and London.
However, for reasons still largely unknown, Ueno Zoo decided that instead of shooting the larger animals (three elephants – John, Tonky and Wanli, a Polar Bear and a Hippo and her cub) they would be left to starve to death as shooting them was considered ‘bad for public morale.’ It took a whole month for them to die. It’s reported that Tonky, who was the last to die, made repeated attempts to get food by showing off her tricks to the public as the zoo was still open.
Then in 1945 captured US Army Air Force pilot Ray ‘Hap’ Halloran was put on display naked covered in weeping sores in one of the tiger cages for civilians to look at.
Luckily once the war ended Ueno Zoo’s controversies also ended. In 1975 a memorial was erected inside the zoo for the animals that died.
Today Ueno Zoo is popular because of it’s Giant Pandas.
When the long-term resident Panda LingLing died in 2008 (after a 30 year stay) Ueno was left without it’s premiere attraction. However in 2011 two new Pandas (Billy, renamed Lili and Siennyu, renamed ShinShin) arrived from China and remain the zoo’s primary attraction.
Ueno Zoo is now home to over 2600 individual animals and somewhere between 460-500 species. As the zoo is so large the eastern and western parts of the grounds are connected by a monorail – the first in Japan when it was constructed.
Our day at the zoo was supposed to be a relaxing, easy-going sort of day. The zoo was a five minute walk from our hotel, the day was (relativity) warm and sunny, and we were still on cloud nine after a crazy day in Harajuku.
Ueno Park was buzzing with people and beautiful birds were gliding from tree to tree and singing. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and everywhere children were devouring icecreams, giggling at their parents, and riding on carousels. It was the most stereotypically idyllic day.
We were even more excited when we arrived at the Zoo to find it was only 600 Yen for entry – our previous day’s shopping spree had severely dented both of our holiday funds.
Once we entered the first thing we saw was the Panda mascot statue and, of course, the Pandas themselves. This was the first and best part of the day:
But once the elation of seeing the pandas up-close-and-personal passed, things started to turn sour quickly.
Next we passed the Elephant enclosure. It seemed to be undergoing reconstruction but we were distressed to find the Elephant alone (Elephants are social creatures) and in a cage that was literally only just bigger than itself.
I understand that the Elephant has to go somewhere while the enclosure is upgraded but it was sad to see this one clearly going mad from boredom or loneliness.
Things go downhill
Next we came upon ‘Monkey Hill.’ It was first built in 1931 as a ‘first of its kind.’ You can really tell:
It was a depressing structure with no trees or shrubs, and as far as I could tell, no entertainment. The monkeys lay on it, still and apathetic, and looked awfully unhappy.
Only the youngsters were active, playing on the only moving feature of the enclosure – a tiny bridge over dirty water. Again we were taken aback. It was so bare and horrible and there was no shade from the sun.
We moved on quickly to find a succession of animals in disturbingly small enclosures: Emus with only meters to move and Llamas in concrete enclosures with no shade, food, water or a place to rest.
We moved on hoping to find something better.
Next we came across the penguin pool and our hopes lifted.
The pool looked bigger and in better condition. Except when we got close things weren’t as they seemed. The stink wafting from the enclosure was indescribably pungent. And as the penguins poured out of their dens it became obvious they weren’t happy. They were scratching themselves obsessively and several of them had completely plucked their stomach feathers out – their bare bellies red-raw and scabbed. Whether that was from parasites, boredom, or both I don’t know.
Now our attention turned from the animals to the zoo itself.
I think what made this already awful spectacle worse is that the space allocated to pedestrian walkways, in comparison to the enclosures, is obscene. There was so much room to walk – too much considering the state of the animal pens.
Next we found 20 flamingos confined together in a space not much larger than the penguin enclosure. Again, there was little to no shade from the sun. Then we saw 5-7 kangaroos all caged together in a space not much larger than the bedroom I’m writing from now. There was only one tree and no entertainment. The final straw was witnessing the anteaters licking at each other through the cage bars and scratching themselves in an obsessively repetitive way.
Again their enclosures were bare, small, and depressing.
After being at Ueno Zoo for only 20 minutes we decided to leave. We found the nearest exit and walked out, happy to be moving away from such a horrible prison.
Thoughts on Ueno Zoo
While our day at Ueno Zoo was undoubtedly horrid I don’t think the zoo itself is guilty of any particular crime other than being old and outdated.
All zoo’s, no matter how modern or outdated, take animals out of their natural habitat for the viewing pleasure of humans and, perhaps, to make a tidy profit. It’s just that when you visit an outdated zoo this reality becomes so much harder to ignore.
I realised, as I walked around Ueno Zoo, that the Perth Zoo is quite nice. It’s modern and there’s heavy emphasis on natural environments and providing adequate entertainment for the more intelligent and large animals.
But it’s still a zoo. It’s still a place where animals potentially suffer for our enjoyment and, in my opinion, that makes it a less than desirable place to visit. Perhaps I should thank Ueno Zoo? I had been feeling increasingly uneasy visiting the zoo here in Perth and my experience at Ueno Zoo finally revealed why I was becoming so uncomfortable.
Sorry for the heavy post this time guys. Let’s move on to something more lighthearted and fun!
Next post: the Alice in Wonderland Restaurant, Shinjuku.
Until next time,
Kally & Mon.
How do I find Ueno Zoo?
Nope, not for this one. If you still want to visit you can find the information elsewhere. It’s exceptionally easy to find anyway.
[Feature Image Credit: Haikugirl’s Japan]
[Image Credit (1, 3): Japan Focus]
[Image Credit (2): AxPOW]
[Image Credit (4): The Wire]
[Image Credit (all others): Monique Nielsen – unedited]
Have you visited Ueno Zoo? What’s your opinion of Japan’s oldest zoo?