TOKYO — A Tokyo zoo said Monday it will work on improving the living conditions for its 69-year-old elephant after an animal welfare expert recommended simple additions such as infrared heaters and new toys instead of moving her to a sanctuary.
"The zoo has done a lot of good," said Carol Buckley, who was invited to the zoo by the "Help Hanako" campaign that sought to improve the elephant's situation or move it to a Thai sanctuary.
Hanako was among the healthiest elephants, for her age, she has ever seen, she added. Their usual lifespan is about 70 years.
Inokashira Park Zoo has said moving Hanako would be too stressful. A gift from Thailand in 1949, Hanako, or "flower child," has lived in a zoo since she was 2.
Buckley said Hanako is happy and loves her zookeepers. Instead of moving her, Buckley recommends infrared heaters and rubber mats to make her small concrete pen more livable. She suggested playing music and adding more toys, such as frozen fruit inside a tire. Tires and a tube are Hanako's favorite toys now.
Buckley, an American who founded an animal sanctuary and has worked with other captive elephants, said renovating or enlarging Hanako's pen would require noisy construction that might stress the animal. And introducing other elephants and even foliage could bewilder Hanako.
Zoo Curator Hidemasa Hori, who met with Buckley during her visit, said the zoo will work on making the "environmental enrichment" changes, although some bureaucratic procedures would be required. The city of Tokyo runs the zoo.
Ulara Nakagawa, whose blog inspired the campaign, says funds can be raised to help make changes for Hanako.
It was unclear whether those who were behind the petition drive to move Hanako out of the zoo would be convinced by Buckley's findings.
Buckley noted animal activists need to be educated, regardless of their good intentions.
"You think she should be put on a plane or a boat and go to Thailand? What are you thinking?" she said.
Buckley noted Hanako was clearly bored and needs more toys as well as more time with the zookeepers.
"When her keepers let her in the barn, she just lit up. Her eyes got big, and her body relaxed, and she came in and her ears were flapping," she said. "She came right over to the bars where they were and solicited their petting the entire time and didn't stop talking."
In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, Hanako the elephant stands in her pen at Inokashira Park Zoo on the outskirts of Tokyo. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press
Hori said the zoo was open to Buckley's ideas. He was happy the meeting had not been confrontational and was hopeful some of the easier changes might be in the works as early as Hanako's birthday party later this month.
"They agreed Hanako should not be moved," he said in a telephone interview, acknowledging that perhaps the zookeepers had too readily assumed Hanako did not want change. "This is just a beginning."
Story: Yuri Kageyama / Associated Press