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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Zoo History: Zoos of Death

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Japan and the United States were officially at war. Unlike the isolationist Americans, the Japanese had been at war for the several years prior to this, conquering a swath of territory across Southeast Asia.  With the entry of the United States into the conflict, however, the scope of the war in Asia was to change dramatically.  In fact, virtually every aspect of Japanese life was soon to be profoundly affected.  That included the zoos.

For a nation which had long been isolated from the rest of the world, Japan quickly caught on to the idea of western-style zoological parks prior to being opened to the west.  By the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan had over a dozen zoos on the islands, featuring the usual complement of animals from around the world - big cats and bears, elephants and giraffes.  At the beginning of the war, the Japanese felt assured that victory would be swift.  The zoos remained open, popular with the public.

Soon, however, the war caught up with the civilian population of Japan... and their zoos.  Keepers and other employees went off to war.  Food stuffs for the animals became scarcer and scarcer, with some animals succumbing to starvation.  Coal and oil sources were appropriated by the military, making it difficulty to heat animal houses.  Even the zoo itself began to disappear into the war effort, as cages and guardrails were dismantled for their metal, repurposed as weapons of war.  There were still, however, a fair number of animals in Japanese zoos.  Some were quite dangerous and that, in the eyes of the Japanese authorities, now no longer so confident, made mindful of the risk of air raids, was a problem.  The solution was a grim one.

Towards the end of the war, the order went out to put to death the potentially dangerous animals in every zoo in Japan.  Some were shot.  Some were strangled with nooses.  Some were poisoned.  Some (for reasons I still don't understand) were deliberately starved - one female elephant took a month to die.   When zoo officials resisted calls to destroy their animals, armed "vigilance committees" gave them a choice - you do it... or we will.  Even in death, the animals were called upon to serve the nation as propaganda pieces, further martyrs of the war whose deaths the military hoped would solidify anger against the Allies.

Many zoos in Germany and other European nations were also destroyed during the war (when Bernhard Grzimek took over the Frankfort Zoo after the war, it had one hippo to its name), lost to air raids.  Japanese zoos were relatively untouched in this way.  In contrast, the European zoos didn't experience what the Japanese did - the silent, systematic slaughter of every animal perceived to be a threat.

Like Germany, after the war, Japan rebuilt its zoos (though the grounds of the Kyoto Zoo were temporarily used as a camp site for occupation forces).  Former enemies, now allies, supplied new animals.  The Americans sent the first shipment in 1949 - a handful of turtles... a small start, but the beginning of the stream that later included native American animals (pumas, skunks, coyotes) and exotics (lions, parrots).  India, which during the war had been the site of Japanese invasions, sent an elephant, gifted by Premier Nehru himself.  Eventually, Japan became wealthy and secure enough to go on its own collecting expeditions, restocking the zoos with animals from around the world.  New zoos were constructed steadily throughout the postwar period.

Today, Japan is filled with many excellent zoos; it's sometimes amazed me that such a small country can hold so many (also, that it can hold so many people).   The deaths at the zoos of Japan may pale in comparison to the many, much worse horrors of World War II, but they were still a painful memory for many of the people of that country.  They serve as a reminder that not all victims of war are humans.

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