It’s the only life she has ever known and it looks to be the only life she will ever have. The consolation is that Hanako, “the oldest Asian elephant in Japan” who has recently become the center of attention in a world-wide plea for her release from the Inokashira Park Zoo near Tokyo, will at least be made more comfortable in her geriatric years. That is if renowned elephant expert Carol Buckley’s recommendations are heeded.
After a previous visit to that very zoo, a Vancouver B.C. woman was overcome by the sight of Hanako, whom she was told was an elephant; was ostensibly an elephant. But Hanako was not the embodiment of a real-life elephant, not in spirit anyway.
It was hard for the Canadian to describe; having seen such a majestic creature reduced to a “figurine”, just a statue, if you will. But it all didn’t happen overnight. Time takes its toll on an elephant confined to a concrete compound.
Hanako was only two when she gave up (involuntarily, of course) the only life she would ever know as an elephant. From Thailand, her birthplace in 1947, she was whisked off to Uneo Zoo in Tokyo to fulfill an order by public demand to replace three elephants (who were cruelly starved to death when “the Tokyo governor ordered zoos to kill their fierce animals” as a safety precaution “to prevent disorder”, they said, during “wartime air raids”). Why, Hanako was even named for another Hanako she was replacing in the same zoo, who had just died.
In 1954 her fate would be sealed when she was moved to the place she would stand, practically immobile, for the rest of her days (she has now been deemed too frail and too set in her ways to relocate to a better place). See Carol Buckley’s assessment.
It wasn’t long afterward that in 1956 she “trampled” and killed “a drunken man who had entered her enclosure and four years later a zookeeper was found dead in her den”. Forever after the General Curator Hidemasa Hori at the Inokashira Zoo in Tokyo has branded her, “so to speak” a “killer elephant”.
He continues “She is a difficult and sensitive elephant. I was surprised. Those who signed the petition didn’t know much about Hanako. I think the long journey would put a heavy physical toll on her. We think it would be better for her to spend the rest of her life in familiar conditions. We know there are many criticisms but it is too late there is no choice now.”
Even Ulara Nakagawa, the Canadian who lead the campaign for Hanako’s release (in her blog posts, as an elephant activist, and on a return visit with Carol Buckley to determine the viability of a new life for this geriatric elephant. Hanako is age 68, far exceeding the age for a captive elephant’s dreary life, which is 40.) agrees that because of her advanced years and frail health (Hanako has had lingering “digestive difficulties” and chronic constipation, the result of having lost 3 of her 4 teeth over thirty years ago.) that the happy ending for our elephant Hanako, in terms of a second chance at having an elephant life, may not be possible. Not possible?
Is this all that Hanako has left to hold onto? (Despite the sincere love expressed by a number of Japanese visitors to the zoo on a news video they did not seem to truly understand Hanako’s plight.) Is this all that is left for an elephant Carol Buckley found “shivering” from Japan’s cold climate the entire time she was around? Is this all that is left for an elephant caught in the middle of back and forth discussions for two polar options for her life?
There are those chanting the zoo’s old-school philosophy (who needs this pachyderm to thrive) of never having seen anything wrong with wanting to keep her and there are those who want her remaining years to be likened to an elephant with companionship and freedom and all that that implies.
But tragedies are not exclusive to Greek mythology and the tragedy of keeping our elephants in captivity is certainly exemplified in Hanako’s life. Finding it more dangerous to move her, (in both the physical and emotional sense for an elephant, as obviously there are no nearby sanctuaries to take her in) the overriding concern is now providing comfort (palliative care ) for Hanako and we are asked to accept that fact.
As Ulara Nakagawa explained: “This was a bit of a shock that she wouldn’t be moved. People…want to see an elephant run off into the horizon. But knowing what I know now, I know it would just destroy her.”
So, while our elephant Hanako won’t be crossing the ocean in the happy ending that we wanted for her this just goes to show that nothing could stop us from crossing the ocean for her.
And for all the other elephants out there nothing ever will.
Thank you Ulara Nakagawa for loving elephants so and to Carol Buckley for all that you have done to help Hanako, and all other elephants in the world.
Note: AbZOOlutely Not** or The Controversy of Zoos & Others Keeping Elephants in Captivity (**A disclaimer about this category. While there are some Zoos that demonstrate exemplary methods of elephant care, unfortunately, they do not represent the “lion’s share”.)
The Daily Mail article by John Hutchinson “Trapped in her Concrete Prison for 66 Years….”
Ulara Nakagawa’s Blog “The Tragic Story of Hanako the 68 Year Old Elephant in a Tokyo Zoo”
Ulara Nakagawa’s update on Hanako
Carol Buckley on Hanako
Carol Buckley Final Report on Hanako
City News “Japan Zoo to Improve Conditions But Keep Elephant After B.C. Woman’s Campaign”
Japan Times archive article “Nation’s Oldest Asian Elephant Set to Turn 65” Learn Hanako’s fav foods.
YouTube Campaign video of Ulara Nakagawa
YouTube video of Hanako at the Inokashira Park Zoo near Tokyo where she has spent her life
YouTube video news story of Hanako and her history