Zoos and sanctuaries. Not all the same.
I have always been a little apprehensive about zoos. There is so many zoos out there, just like there is so many sanctuaries out there. Like with anything, you have to do your research. Not every zoo, not every sanctuary, not every animal encounter is ethical. It just depends on the country and their standards.
Why I have paid Ueno Zoo a visit
I have recently been in Tokyo and discovered that you can visit Ueno Zoo for free on three particular days per year. The admission is free on March 20 for Ueno Zoo’s Anniversary Day, on May 4 for Greenery Day and on October 1 for Tokyo Citizens’ Day. I happened to be in Tokyo in May, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to see for myself what this zoo is all about without financially supporting it. As I have read several negative reviews regarding animal cruelty on this zoo, it was important for me not to spend any money on a place that potentially treats their animals badly.
There is three entrances to the zoo. The Ikenohate Gate, the Benten Gate and the Main Gate. The zoo is placed around several train and subway lines, mostly around Ueno Station, so all entrances are easily accessible.
Starting point: Benten Gate
There is heaps of negative response to the zoo on TripAdvisor, so I was prepared for what I could possibly encounter.
I entered via the Benten Gate and literally the first thing I saw was a sign that stated the conservation efforts for the Steller’s Sea Eagle. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see that.
However, then I walked further to the Small Animal House which showcases mice, guinea pigs, rabbits and hedgehogs. I found it extremely confronting to look at these gorgeous creatures because it was so obvious that their cages are far too small to move around, especially the mice could hardly go anywhere. It was awful to watch and I couldn’t stay there for too long because of that.
Further along, I came past various birds. While any enclosure can always be bigger, I feel that the birds had a decent amount of space. I was expecting much worse than this. So I was relieved to see that. It was also good to see zoo staff in enclosures to clean or provide food and water. I loved that.
The penguin area looked fairly decent. However, one of their enclosures doesn’t have enough water for them to swim in. That definitely needs attention as this is one of the major activities of a penguin. Other than that, they seemed pretty chilled waddling around.
Small enclosures. Big distress.
As for the enclosures that I found far too small for the animals, there were quite a few. The hippos are separated into several ones but I felt that those were still too small for an individual. Same goes for the rhino!
The crocodiles are put into an incredibly tiny enclosure. Yes, it has rocks and water and some plants but the crocodile could literally only lay in the water pool provided and not actually move around in it. I found that quite horrific to watch.
The seals have rocks and water to play in but again, the space is far too small for the amount of seals there. It’s all too narrow, all too cramped. I cannot see how they can enjoy being in there.
The most confronting encounter I have had at Ueno Zoo was with the armadillos. While they’re separated from each other and I assume there is a valid reason for these particular two, they both showed obvious signs of stress. Click HERE to see a video of them moving around like two mad animals. Seeing the one on the right especially gave me shivers and brought me to tears. It clearly wanted to get out of there and needed some attention, possibly medical attention next to a bigger space.
Not far from the armadillos lives the Aardvark. This was another confronting moment. While it has a fairly decent space, there is literally nothing in it. No stimulation of any kind. Just some shredded bark. That’s it. My immediate thought was ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’… like seriously. I felt that putting in some sort of plant or tree would have made it so much nicer for this gorgeous creature.
While there are numerous reviews online about the lion in particular, there is a sign up to explain about his amputated tail. Apparently, it needed to have this procedure due to an injury it has suffered. Other than that, it has a decent sized enclosure. The same goes for the gorillas.
The tiger. While there are four signs to educate and explain about the tiger’s general problems in the wild, I have to say that seeing this particular one in Ueno Zoo made me sad. It had an OK amount of space but when I was there, it kept walking up and down a path. Constantly. Back and forth. For me, this was a sign of stress as well.
The elephants. A standout for the wrong reasons.
Another species that showed some strange behaviour was the elephant. Their enclosures certainly could be a little bigger but it didn’t feel abnormally small. However, one of the elephants kept looking for food and wanted to go back into a closed off part of the enclosure where they must usually rest. The way the elephant was moving back and forth repeatedly didn’t look healthy to me. There was definitely some form of stress visible here.
Clearly, they were out to put on display which is fine but I felt that there could have been more food provided. Elephants eat a lot of food per day. I know this because of my previous volunteer work at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Even if there had been a basket for each elephant that even suggests that there had been food provided, that would have made a difference for me and the feeling I have had about this. I am sure they have certain feeding times and maybe they were about to be fed. I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. But this was what I saw when I passed the elephant enclosure. It made me feel upset because I have an especially soft spot for elephants as they get mistreated so often in various scenarios.
Other species and conclusion
I didn’t get to see the pandas. They are the main drawing point for Ueno Zoo. Most people go only to see them. There is usually a long wait to see them. As I didn’t visit them, I cannot comment on their enclosures or well-being. Seeing that they’re Ueno Zoo’s main attraction, I would like to think they’re well looked after accordingly.
By all means, I am not a vet. In this article, I am going by what I saw, what I felt and what I have experienced. There sure may be some logical explanations for certain animals behaviours I have encountered but this is the raw observations I have made. This may give you reason to do some further research on the animals there and whether you do or do not want to support it.
My overall view: I know that there is much worse cases of zoos and sanctuaries in the world, for example in Cambodia. So in comparison to that, Ueno Zoo was a pleasant experience. Pleasant because the animals have a place to sleep and they get fed. They’re not left to die like in other disgraceful zoos. They didn’t seem malnourished or sick to me. However, there is certainly room for improvement on various levels.
I am emotionally driven. I go by what I feel, and due to the fact that I have felt sad a few times during my visit, I would not go back to this zoo. They need to do some upgrading on enclosures and have a closer eye on species that are in obvious distress. Once this is addressed and announced publicly, I would be willing to give it another go.
Quicklist of Pro’s and Con’s
For your reference, here’s a Quicklist of pro & con facts I have put together on my visit at Ueno Zoo.
- Staff cleaning and bringing food to certain species
- Random signs of conservation efforts, like sea eagle and tiger
- Signs of status in the wild
- Enclosures appeared clean
- Lion – explanation about amputated tail
- Most species have a decent enclosure like gorillas, lion, penguins, birds
- Hippos – enclosures too small
- Crocodile – enclosure too small
- Armadillo – enclosure too small, stressed
- Elephants – one elephant looking for food or wanting to go back to his enclosure
- Guinea pigs – enclosure too small
- Common mouse – enclosure too small
- Rabbit – enclosure too small
- Seals – enclosure too small
- Penguins – one enclosure doesn’t have enough water for them to swim
- Aardvark – just an enclosure with no stimulation, no plants or trees, just a bit of shredded bark
- Tiger – constantly walking up and down a path in his enclosure, sign of stress
Have you had a recent experience at a zoo or sanctuary? I would love to hear about. Leave me a comment about your story.