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.