Conservation and Animal Welfare

Why I Cried for the Zoo Animals in Japan

Why I Cried for the Zoo Animals in Japan


It is not uncommon to see the TV ad asking for you to donate money for starving dogs in India and the Facebook posts to save the rhinos being poached in Africa. It is not uncommon to receive random letters in the mail telling you about the horrific conditions of circus animals, pleading with you to improve their conditions.  It is not uncommon to be exposed to graphic images of animals starving, in poor health, and even on the edge of death.

What is uncommon, is to see it for yourself.

Seeing the devastation on an animal’s body and the emptiness in its eyes brought me to a heightened reality. It has been nearly three months since I visited a Japanese zoo and still tears creep up into my eyes when I remember all of the animals’ misery.

My husband and I temporarily moved to Inuyama, Japan for three months so that I could study Japanese macaques as part of my master’s degree. My research was taking place at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute and nearby was the Japan Monkey Centre. The Japan Monkey Centre holds over 60 primate species – more than most zoos or facilities in the world. When visiting this zoo, it becomes very clear to visitors how they have made this claim. With so many primate species, the zoo is beyond capacity. Monkeys are stuffed into small cages and groups of primates in the numbers of 20’s and 30’s are held within spaces not even an adult human could lay down in. A lone mandrill is kept in a cell where if he spread his arms, he could touch the fence and the wall. Shockingly, rows of cages filled with monkeys are just across the visitor footpath where a new exhibit for lemurs draws people in. Walk-in enclosures with squirrel monkeys and lemurs are 50 times larger than a single cage. It is evident that these are new additions to the zoo because visitors take pictures with the animals, and we all know that is where the money is.

While walking through the center’s footpath and exhibits, I drew up a mental checklist of violations for modern codes for animal welfare. One of the first violations that I witnessed were over-crowding and lack of enrichment. Baboons were in a circular enclosure, almost like a fish bowl, where they circled around and around out of boredom. Japanese macaques, who were obviously over-populated, pulled out their hair so that the back of the necks and backs were bare.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, gibbons were completely alone and were caged in isolation. We could hear one gibbon’s lonely call persist for hours – from the morning to when we ate lunch. As bad as the situation was, I truly did not expect it to get worse.  There was a second footpath that led to a whole other half of the zoo; it is here that I truly began to lose control of my emotions.

The cages had gray slabs of cement for walls, rusty bars, and metal doors with a tiny window. Upon our approach to the cages, a caretaker fed the monkeys by dropping food from the tops of the cages. Out of a bucket, he drops one dismal handful of vegetables and fruits in each cage – one handful no matter how many are in the cage or the sizes of the individuals. On the opposite of the building are cells where more monkeys are held. This time, it is just four concrete walls with a glass window for visitors to look in. Again, not even an adult human can lay down in either of the cells.  I peered into each cage and found a baboon in one, the next one empty, and others with an individual or two sleeping on a concrete shelf. Near the end of the display, was a lone macaque. With one glance, I felt a hand reach up and clench my heart.I doubt I even exhaled a breath as blood stopped flowing in my veins.  Inside this pathetic cell, was a macaque confined to a cage the size of a cat carrier.

A monkey in one of the better exhibits at Japan Monkey Centre.
A vervet monkey self-mutilating its tail at Japan Monkey Centre.

The monkey was in a cage in a cage.

As my heart sank, I couldn’t help but wonder the reason for this second method of confinement. Anger and deep sorrow flooded me and very quickly, tears began to pour.  My husband held me closely and softly said, “I know. I am so sorry, dear”.

A couple of weeks after seeing the conditions at the Japan Monkey Centre, we decided to visit Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya, Japan. We knew that a more publically funded zoo would house and treat animals much better.

We could never be so wrong.

Higashiyama Zoo held hundreds of visitors, unlike Japan Monkey Centre where only small groups of people wandered. Although there was a difference in visitor attendance, the zoo culture was very much the same. Japanese visitors gawked and oggled at animals in horrid conditions. They brought their iPhones and cameras up to cages, taking photographs of animals sulking in corners. They pushed their children to the front of the line so that they could peer at the dangerous jaguar sleeping on concrete. They chatted excitedly to each other as the male lion roared in a small cell with no escape from public view. I felt outrage when they pointed and smiled at the polar bear who had no shade from the hot sun and no shelter from the swarms of loud people around him. Adjacent to his pool was a shaded cave and a barred door that led to it. Fury swelled within in me as I watched him pace around this door – shade was within a paw’s reach and yet, the caretakers had locked it shut.

Knowing my love for primates, my husband first led our venture to the primate’s section of the zoo. In this area is the famous Shabani, a silverback gorilla, whose face and size is printed on every zoo T-shirt and bag. The entry to see Shabani was so crowded that I had two seconds to look. But that two seconds was enough for me.  The exhibit was small, too small for a silverback and his family, and had only a few items of enrichment for multiple gorillas. I didn’t need to look any longer at my favorite animal pent up in a clown-car cell. So, we moved on to other parts of the zoo.

The “Reptile House” was a building far from its name. Within this building were fish, monkeys, aardvarks, and rodents among the enclosures of reptiles. The lack of taxonomic organization puzzled me, and I continued to wonder why certain tree-climbing and ground-dwelling mammals were kept in reptile cages. Upon entry, we were pleasantly surprised with the gator house and the amount of vegetation, pools, and its humid climate. Further into the building, our weak liking became replaced with immediate regret and guilt.

The ball python’s infected wound at Higashiyama Zoo.

I am not an expert on snakes, and I cannot read kanji, so I guessed that the snake in the glass tank was a ball python. The snake was curled into a circle of rings, and along the outer rim of its circle was a pussy and infected wound.  While zooming in on the injury, I had to fight the urge to gag.  The injury was so horrendous, I can only guess at what caused it – “Are rats feeding on it at night? Did the snake injure itself? Is it some sort of disease?” More questions began to enter my mind, “Why is the snake on display? Why isn’t it getting treatment? Does anyone even care?”

The basement of the Reptile House foreshadowed my emotions. It was dark, devoid of happiness and life, and felt like a nightmare. The corridors were dark and the glass cages were lit by lightbulbs. Nocturnal and diurnal animals were held here. Aardvarks paced back in forth in a small cage that mocked their natural habitat.

Squirrels were given a branch or two to climb around on as visitors looked at them in the unnatural light. To my surprise, the zoo had accommodated some nocturnal species with red lighting so they wouldn’t be as disturbed during the day. One of the species given this accommodation was the slow loris. There were four cages with slow lorises in them. Most were in a ball on a branch, or feeding out of their food bowl. But one in particular was very active. At first I didn’t understand what the loris was doing because of the red light and the awkward movement of its arm.

It wasn’t until I stepped closer and watched longer that I realized it was mutilating itself.

My insides screamed as I watched it pull skin and flesh off of its already bare side. It yanked with insanity, pulling with vigor and potency. I wanted to be sick right then and there. I wanted to weep in a corner and cry for the poor life and the misery this creature must have to endure. If I had a gun, I would have shot it there just to put an end to its madness and misery.

There was no escaping the stir of emotions within me. Inside I felt rage, confusion, sympathy, and an unbearable sorrow that still constricts my heart today. In the United States and in England, my husband and I enjoyed going to zoos and have spent entire days seeing all of the animals. But, this time we left Higashiyama Zoo with a bitter taste in our mouths and an oath to never fund a Japanese zoo with our ticket again. And still, my heart and mind weighs heavy at the thought that I’ll never be able to help these animals.

A hippotamous in its exhibit at Higashiyama Zoo.

Some may have died since I’ve left; part of me hopes they have just so that they don’t have to endure the suffering any longer. I wish I could turn this whole article around and tell you that I can fix this. But I know that would be a lie. I wish I could fix this. I wish I could improve the conditions these animals were kept in and how they are treated. At this moment, all I hope to do is make you aware. We all live in our personal reality and ignore the TV ads, the Facebook posts, and rip up the unwanted letters in the mail. Sometimes we do it because it is too much to look at or think about. But next time you are asked to help, be there. You don’t have to physically be in India with the starving dog, or the rhino poached for its horn, but just bring your mind and your perspective to that moment.

How does it make you feel? What does this mean?

How can you help?