Where the “Wild” Things Are

Cue dramatic music: I stayed up until 2AM last night writing this post, but when I published it, all of it was lost. So I spent another hour this morning re-writing this post. But miraculously the post last night randomly appeared! Which is great but I definitely wrote like 200 words less in my re-written post, but also sad because I was so stressed and have yet to do the reading for today.

Today, we went to the zoo! But not just any zoo–it was Ueno Zoo, the first modern zoo in Japan. I’m going to be honest and say that I’m not a fan of zoos. I went to a couple zoos 子供の時, including the relatively famous San Diego Zoo, and I think I enjoyed them at the time. But now I would much rather go to an art museum than see animals forced out of their habitat just for humans to look at them. However, we went for the purpose of intellectualizing a zoo visit, so this was a good experience!

Zoos bring animals and humans together to emphasize that they are separate. This was one of the first points in the reading that we had to prepare for today (Introduction, Ch. 1, and Ch. 6 of Nature of the Beasts by some dude named Miller). When walking to the zoo, it was clear that we were going somewhere meant to be an escape or “oasis” from the city. Tall buildings were replaced with leafy trees and instead of power-walking on narrow streets we strolled through spacious walkways. It was beautiful but so purposefully constructed to be so. In front of the zoo entrance was a poster campaigning for panda conservation. I don’t want to quote the sign wrong, but it was translated to basically say that the public should help achieve the “panda’s dream.” EW. That is a pretty problematic statement. It seems like it is a way to justify and feel good about human intervention, like “oh what we’re doing is what pandas actually want.” We have no way of knowing what they want. Part of me is conflicted because now there is no way pandas could survive the way they did before humans started intervening. Pandas have very little success in reproducing, especially in captivity, so it is very likely that they would become extinct without human help. Do humans have a responsibility to save pandas? Ahhh. I’m not sure. Through poaching and habitat destruction, we were/are the main threat to panda populations. But there are countless other species that have become/are becoming extinct because of humans and we haven’t put in the same effort to save them. Miller proposed that this is because pandas remind of us of human babies, so we have this parental drive to think they’re cute and want to take care of them. There was this quote in the reading: “[pandas] seemed to be designed… to play on human psychology.” EW AGAIN. I know he isn’t using definitive language, but this implies that pandas exist solely for human enjoyment. I do not agree with rationalizing our fascination with animals by saying their purpose in life is to please humans.

Anyway, upon entering the zoo, without hesitation, we immediately went to see the panda exhibit. I guess I’m a hypocrite because I was a bit excited to see a panda. But I will say that I was underwhelmed and could have done without seeing the panda (or any of the animals, really) that was on display. The panda just sat there, stuffing its face with bamboo, as workers tried to make us leave in order to keep the line moving. I’m not sure if I find the panda cute, but I do find panda merchandise cute! This is similar to what happened in the early 1980s to the early 2000s, when there was a panda boom, which the author describes as “when the pandas’ media value outstripped their worth as physical animals.” Our visit brought up discussion on copyrighting animal drawings, which involves anthropomorphizing it in some way (giving it a name, drawing blushing squares on its cheeks, etc).

Pandas weren’t the only animals we saw. Some of the animals I remember included a sad-looking gibbon, a Selinger-seranded elephant, some rascal Japanese monkeys, a hungry tiger, two roasting polar bears, and a few cramped candors. I was the most irked from the polar bear exhibit. In it, there were two polar bears in the open-air lying in the shade, surrounded by rocks shaped and painted to look like ice. I dunno what’s worse: taking the polar bears out of their natural habitat and putting them on a bunch of hot rocks for display, or putting the polar bears in that situation and trying to mimic their natural habitat when it is clearly not. We also saw the Japanese serow, a goat-antelope mammal that is endemic (unique to certain habitat, found no where else in the world) to Japan. In our discussion about the use of animals as diplomatic symbols, we learned that this animal was what Japan gave to China in exchange for pandas in the 1970s. The serow is not the cutest animal, but its name does lend itself for great puns.

Another aspect of the zoo that I found interesting was the use of the playground in multiple exhibits. I am not sure what purpose this served. The playground was a bit different from a public playground, as the color palette was different shades of brown and the materials used were wood and rope. This was obviously meant to make it look more “wild.” Perhaps the playground was meant to entertain the animals or to make kids (the dominant demographic in the zoo) have more interest and relate to the animals. Either way, this does not fit with the zoo’s goal of trying to separate humans from animals.

Once again, I was glad to go to the museum with a professor and my classmates. We went to the Tokyo National Museum with Selinger 先生! Not only did we look at some amazing artifacts and primary sources, but we also got the insightful expert commentary on their historical and cultural contexts. What was interesting to me was the obvious display of wealth and lack of accessibility for the viewer. What I mean by accessibility is that visitors were positioned as passive observers. The explanations were fairly light, especially in English (meaning that the audience is more for the Japanese), so it would be hard to understand what exactly you’re looking at unless you know the cultural and historical context. This was in contrast to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which displayed the “ordinary” and was made to be interactive for visitors.

P.S. I finally finished editing my Daigo Fukuryu Maru post, so if you have time (it’s a long one), please read it 🙂

Pandamonium at Ueno

Its been a while since I set foot inside in a zoo. Although I picture a zoo as a humongous space, Ueno Zoo was a little smaller than what I had in mind (but, that could be because Ueno Park also houses three amazing Museums amongst other national treasures).

Our reading mainly focused on the world-wide infatuation of pandas. Although I do admit Pandas are cute I was not expecting the Panda exhibit to be as crowded as it was. It was right next to the main gate with a line trailing well into other exhibits…There he was… A large male panda by the name of Li Li munching on bamboo shoots. According to the article, Panda’s flat face, round cheeks, and fat body remind us of children and babies which triggers paternal/maternal instinct in humans. We can’t help but to take care of them. In today’s world, Pandas cannot survive without the aid of humans. They rely on humans for the their most basic needs shuts food to reproduction. In a way… they have become our babies. However, Humans have done much damaged to the pandas’ natural environment which maybe have caused their evolution from independent bears to dependent cubs. We nearly drove them to extinction, I’d say it is our responsibility to keep them alive, ne.

In the middle of the Zoo, we encountered an image of the zoo a few years after its opening. As a class we picked out the features in which we could see the Zoo’s transformational claim from a place that portrays human dominance over nature to a place of education and conservation and other differences:

  • Animals used to be kept in cages. Unlike today’s zoo, animals habitats were not personalized or tailored to their needs beyond steel bars.
  • Like today, the animals were grouped according to either geographical compatibility or scientific classification of animals via the Linnean System.
  • Zoo buildings were built in the style of Japanese houses, which is unlike today
  • Linguistic observation: The signes in the earlier zoo were posted in Hiragana rather then Katakana (which was the main form of script encountered in today’s zoo).

Struked by the Pandemic or not, I do like cute food, so like all the other zoo visitors, Gerlin and I ended our trip with Panda stamped bread 🙂

Panda Bread


Panda-emic? Turns out I can’t stand zoos

Quick warning: major rant on zoos and pandas incoming. Proceed with caution and at your own risk. I claim no liability for any injured feelings towards pandas or shattering of childhood visits to zoos (including my own).


As a kid, I always enjoyed going to zoos and aquariums. I lived 15 minutes away from Maritime Aquarium and maybe an hour and a half from the Bronx Zoo (I think), where my childhood friend’s dad worked. I grew up reading (children’s) encyclopedias alongside children’s picture books and novels. Animal Planet and Discovery Channel probably got as much or more air time in our living room as channels like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. In short, seeing and learning about animals in these various contexts was probably what drove me to be interested in biology, ecology, and especially marine biology.

What’s the first animal you think of when you think zoo? Probably one among the following: pandas, lions, tigers, bears (oh my), giraffes…did I mention pandas? At Ueno Zoo, the giant panda exhibit is pretty much the first right out of the gates–and it all started with a hastily arranged visit and gift of two pandas from China to Japan (after Nixon’s surprise visit to China where he returned with two pandas and which left Japan scrambling to follow suit). People line up in one of two lines for a close or slightly further away view of the panda (naturally, not the ones originally gifted by China), sitting in a glass and walled enclosure munching away at bamboo. I’ll be honest. Amidst all the “oohs,” “ahhs,” and “kawaii ne” (cute), I’m not particularly moved by pandas. Or typically “cute” things in general. Apparently, according to Lorenz, pandas and certain other animals evoke this affectionate response not just culturally (and commercially), but also biologically/evolutionarily. We’re conditioned to respond to animals with certain head, face, and eye shapes and proportions, so that we’ll be more likely to care for our own offspring when they’re perhaps most vulnerable. So yes. We associate pandas with babies. Supposedly also, there’s just something peaceful and relaxing about how they just sit around. When the two pandas were delivered to Ueno Zoo from China, the Mainichi Shinbun reported after about 3 days of exhibition (and let me grab the exact quote because it riled me so much), “After trying to please everyone for several days in a row, the pandas at the Ueno Zoo, Kang Kang and Lan Lan, have crashed from too much work.” Absolutely infuriating. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really get riled at very many things. This is one of them. So often, we attribute human qualities to animals that I don’t think we have any business doing. The pandas are hardly “trying to please” people, nor are zoo or aquarium (read as: SeaWorld) animals consciously trying to serve people by being there. We tend to anthropomorphize animals. There was a sign next to the panda display saying “Look it stood up!” and some text about it getting exercise; I interpreted it as a nod towards seeing pandas as babies and the monumental moment in life when a baby first stands. Either way, it’s assigning human attributes to the panda.

I’m conflicted, though. On the one hand, I think it’s absurd to ascribe human characteristics, emotions, and values to organisms. But on the other hand, is this what is needed to protect them? That is, I’d always believed that if you can get people interested in the environment and wildlife, interested enough to want to protect them, then maybe you have a shot at conservation en masse. And what better way to do so by getting them fascinated at an early age at places like zoos and aquariums. So all the “oohs” and “ahhs” evoked by pandas and polar bears (it drew a huge reaction when it lifted its head briefly) and these other “charismatic megafauna” maybe is how you get people to care for the environment. But even then, the problem with that is that you don’t focus on all the myriad other organisms on this planet. Heck, as I write this, some obscure, unknown species may well have gone extinct. People won’t care about the insects, the microorganisms, all the wonderful diversity that makes up this planet. Because they aren’t cute. Or majestic. Umbrella species can only protect from so much raining extinction.

I want to rant about one last thing. From what I’ve seen, zoos enclosures are incredibly unrealistic. I’m not really speaking from a “public immersion” perspective. Rather, zoo enclosures seem horribly ill-suited for their occupants. Polar bears lay in the shade in an open air exhibit filled with plexiglas rocks and ice and concrete walkways. Hawks and eagles and owls perch in caged enclosures that seem hardly adequate for these soaring birds. I can only hope that Tokyo Sea Life Park on Tuesday offers more realistic, “natural” environments for its inhabitants. Otherwise, I’m starting to have trouble justifying the enclosure of animals in these artificial, inadequate environments. If zoos and aquariums are meant to show people a glimpse of this “separate” (an association I also disagree with, but [panda] bear with me) or different natural environment, they should at least try to make them as realistic and natural as possible. For our sake as viewers and for the animals’ sake.

6/4 Ueno Zoo–Nature in Captivity

Haven’t been to zoos since the age of three, today I visited Ueno Zoo and got to see the giant pandas from China for the first time. However, my first 出会い with a giant panda was incredibly short: we were pushed through a path five meters away from the room the panda Li Li stayed in and had less than five minutes to take a good look.

My only reaction was to take a bunch of pictures, with Li Li barely visible behind people on the closer path to the panda house. I was disappointed because completely different from my typical impression of pandas eating bamboos in the woods, this panda was restricted in a small room by himself, sitting on the floor eating bamboos. Li Li was the only panda on display today, so the other display rooms marked with the panda’s names were closed. At the end of all the panda rooms was a small space that was supposed to mimic pandas’ natural habitat, and (maybe) because it was too hot, no panda was staying there. The panda section, as well as most of the other sections, looked like a prison to me: they were constantly watched and annoyed by visitors and children, and their schedule was oriented at the need of visitors. For example, at the tiger section, the food was placed right in front of a big piece of glass where people had been eagerly waiting, like predators waiting for their prey.

Although visiting a zoo is 久しぶり for me, this visit still turned out to be depressing. Separated by the thick glass or cage, the animals are not only captured but also made into an anthropocentric exhibition of endangered species, taking a narrative of pure human interest. The slogans such as パンダの夢 and posters educating children about the importance of protecting tigers are incredibly ignorant of the fact that the environmental problems now are not just about protecting several species but the whole ecosystem viewing nature as a whole rather than disjoint parts.

When the Ueno Zoo was first built, it was created in order to show Japan’s modernity taking the Western standards. Although now the zoo has (or appears to have) turned to the direction of educating about environmental preservation, the choices of what animals to include and what not to were made by the human. In the case of Japan, the choices are largely based on the cuteness and popularity of the animal, as well as political significance. Animals are never created equal, and neither are animals in the zoos.

To end this post, I would like to think about a recent genre of animation movies about animals escaping of the zoos/aquariums and making their own lives. What does that have to do with the problems zoos are having now? How should we make of it? In an animation movie about animals escaping the zoo and finally returning to the zoo and becoming star performers (I forgot the name..残念), the animal’s returning is a strong implication of human power over nature; although animals are depicted as smart and kind and humans dumb and evil, the fact that the movie creates a binary of animals v. human is an act of establishing human power as superior to nature.


Today, I went to the zoo. I saw a panda (note the singular). He/she is still very adorable and enjoys eating very much but definitely not as much poop as the pandas before. The frightening amount of tiny children roaming around with parents is scarier to me than a tiger breaking its glass prison and prancing at me (or so I think). I have never liked the zoo. I really do love fluffy animals, especially those that see eating and sleeping (and pooping) as their main life goals. The zoo was more tolerable this time around because of Christmas-sensei’s frequent questioning that directed my attention away from the caged, gazing animals to thinking about the construction and the history of such a space.

The better part of the day (besides getting to try the sensational Ichiran Ramen) was going to the National Museum with a scholar of medieval Japan (SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE). I love museums and have often thought about going into museum studies, the best type of NPOs in my opinion. I paid a lot of attention not only to the displayed items but also the presentation of lights, colors, and space. Compared to the Edo-Tokyo museum of the “ordinary, normal life,” the art displayed in the National Museum is one of ostentatious patronage and elite. And, nevertheless, I love patronage when it gives way to such wonderful creations. I want to someday be highly ranked enough to handle the delicate papers.

A couple more observations:

  • I had known about the prevalence of Buddhism in Japan after the 6th (??) century, but I did not realize HOW prevalent. The Buddhist elements were present in almost every single display, from the aristocrat to the shogunate and the samurais. Buddhism was interpreted and presented differently in each case for various reasons. There were even special mandalas with very heavy Sanskrit/Hinduism/Indian influences. Really enjoy seeing Buddhism from its origins.
  • I have been to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing as well as read many textbook entries about the amazing artifacts in China. But, most of the famous items do not live in China. They are mostly split between UK, France, Japan, Taiwan, and USA. For example, the Mogao Caves has a grotto for sutras. However, when I went last summer, I learned that the grotto has been empty for the last century+. During the late-Qing/early-ROC periods, the imperial forces invaded and took the scrolls for their own collections, including individual collectors and scholars. The fine arts museum in Boston has one of the scrolls, in fact. If museums come to a positive agreement and decide to share/rotate/trade exhibits, the possession of the items would be with a different history than those forcefully taken during times of unrest and violence. I am traveling to Taiwan this summer and my most anticipated stop is actually the National Museum in Taipei, where most of the treasures of the Forbidden Palace are now housed. I still enjoy being able to see these priceless arts, but being in museums does motivate me to question the power of political history even in the “ever-so-aloof” arts.