TOKYO — A gift from the Thai government in 1949, Hanako, or "flower child," has lived in a zoo since she was two and her current 69 years is about the lifespan of captive Asian elephants.
In the humble zoo, among the small cages of owls, guinea pigs and raccoons, Japan's oldest elephant stands in a concrete pen about the size of half of a basketball court. She drinks sugar water from a bucket and munches on bananas with her last remaining tooth while a debate is being waged about where she should live out her final years.
An online petition drive wants her to be moved to a Thai sanctuary, to live in a natural, grassy habitat where elephants romp in herds, not alone in her concrete pen, with a wading pool she hardly uses and a nearby side building to spend the night. "Give her a real life or send her to a sanctuary," the petition says. It's attracted tens of thousands of signatures already, with the aim of submitting them to the suburban Tokyo zoo and the Japanese government.
Inokashira Park Zoo acknowledges it's not fully equipped to keep an elephant. Hanako will be its last, deputy director and general curator Hidemasa Hori said.
But Hori insisted his zoo knew best how to care for her. The aging elephant doesn't like changes, and he believes she shouldn't be moved. "It is too late for Hanako," Hori said.
A Canadian visitor whose blog posts inspired the petition drive says Japan's views on animal welfare at zoos lag behind a global move toward mimicking the animal's natural environment. Vancouver resident Ulara Nakagawa said she was stunned to see Hanako, thinking for a moment that the elephant was a statue, so gray and still it was in its cement pen.
"I've always had a powerful connection to elephants," technology worker Nakagawa said in a telephone interview, adding that she is also opposed to the slaughter of elephants for ivory. "My Hanako thing is just one small act that I'm trying to do. I'm hoping to do much more."
Hori defended what he called the Japanese view of zoos as an educational exhibition of wildlife, which he said was culturally different from the Western view. He slammed the petition drive as "self-righteous and bigoted."
Japanese zoos do not commonly have greenery and soft walking surfaces for large mammals, although Hanako's small concrete pen is extreme. The country's closest resemblance to a wildlife sanctuary is Fuji Safari Park, where visitors can drive cars to areas where animals such as giraffes roam freely.
Chris Draper at Born Free Foundation, a U.S. wildlife-advocacy nonprofit group, said Hanako's living conditions should be improved, by enlarging the space, adding a heated pool and sand piles, and changing the walking surface, if a move turned out to be too risky. He suggested independent experts assess the best action.
On a recent sunny day, Hanako playfully wrapped her trunk around a plastic tube, toying with one of the few distractions in her pen. Children gathering to watch her shouted, "Hanako-san," and "zou-san," using a Japanese honorific.
In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, children look at Hanako at Inokashira Park. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko / AP
Thai tourist Vatcharaqpong Cheewawattananon said he came to see Hanako because he had heard she was a symbol of Thai-Japan friendship. He shrugged off her living conditions.
Three Westerners, a Briton, Italian and Canadian, all longtime residents of Japan, were horrified by Hanako's situation. They danced, gestured and waved a painting one of them had drawn, until Hanako raised her trunk and came close to the edge of its pen, perhaps in curiosity.
"I'm sure she is not happy," said Marian Hara, the Briton and a teacher, who signed the petition. "She is just completely isolated. It is terribly sad."
Story: Yuri Kageyama / Associated Press