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Captive wild animal welfare in Japan: A new concept but awareness is increasing

How Wild Welfare is helping to make animal welfare the norm in Japan
A red panda climbing a tree in its zoo enclosure, Image © Pelican from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Captive wild animal welfare in Japan: A new concept but awareness is increasing

The issues surrounding improving the welfare of wild animals in captivity across Japan are varied, so when we first began working in the country in 2015, we knew the enormity and complexity of the task at hand. The concept of animal welfare in Japan is a relatively new one and the country has often been the focus of condemnation over whaling activities and the capture of wild dolphins during the Taji dolphin drive. But interest and understanding in animal welfare is increasing in Japan just as it is across other Asian countries, and this along with a growing number of Japanese animal welfare organisations who are applying pressure and campaigning for improvements, is leading to positive change.

One reason for the complexity of animal welfare regulation in the country is the legislation. The Act on Welfare and Management of Animals (1973), (revised in 2013 and currently being revised again), makes little reference to wild animals. The Act’s anti-cruelty and duty of care provisions (Articles 2 and 7(1)) apply to captive animals but exclude fish. There is no content that specifically addresses the welfare needs of wild animals kept in captivity and any enforcement mechanisms for specific species are only for domestic animals (Article 44). Registration of a business like a zoo may be rejected only if facilities cannot provide for the health and safety of animals, but do not pertain to their psychological well-being, meaning current protection for wild animals in captivity (including mammals, birds, fish, crustaceans and amphibians), is limited. There are hundreds of captive facilities in Japan, including shopping mall zoos, aquariums and bear parks and the demand for such facilities doesn’t seem to be decreasing.

So, what is the solution to wild animals falling through the gaps in terms of legislation, in a country where people’s understanding of animal welfare is still evolving? How do you go about helping improve the poor conditions facing the country’s captive animals, when no legislation currently exists to properly protect them? Addressing both of these issues is the only way forward – and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The total number of zoos in Japan and the number of animals they keep is currently an unknown, but something we are working on establishing. What we do know is that around 300 zoos and aquariums are members of The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA). As part of its membership requirements this regional zoo association includes references to animal care, but, by their own account, has few regulatory animal welfare requirements.

Our first priority when we started working in Japan was to join forces with JAZA and work with them and animal welfare organisations in the country, to identify what needs to change and the best way of going about making those changes. In the last three years we have given animal care and welfare training to around 80 JAZA facility members – to the very people who are caring for the country’s captive wild animals, day in, day out,

We have provided training and resources to the country’s veterinary officials, whose job it is to monitor captive animal facilities and report on whether the care being offered is appropriate. JAZA have been, and continue to be a fantastic zoo association to work with. Their enthusiasm and commitment to improving animal welfare is profound and we feel privileged to be on this journey with them.

We’ve also been developing relationships and partnerships with leading animal welfare NGOs and experts within Japan, building on their skills and knowledge in animal welfare to develop capacity and address some of the issues. From holding animal welfare seminars to hosting training programmes for students from International Veterinary Student Association, Japan, we’ve not only created long-term partnerships, but also importantly friendships – friendships that are helping us further our work in the country. Animal welfare NGOs in Japan appear to have a good relationship with the zoo community, meaning we can often jointly visit and meet zoo staff in a zoo of concern, and hold productive meetings. All parties involved, despite perhaps having differences of opinion on zoos and aquariums, do have the shared goal of improving animal welfare, and this unity is refreshing to see and to be involved with.

On our latest project we worked with JAZA, animal welfare NGOs and the staff from a facility housing four captive bears in very poor conditions and we were able to secure a better home for the bears in the UK. Why move them to the UK? Because it was agreed by all involved, that the situation in Japan is such that there was no suitable facility that could take them. In what became one of our largest projects to date, moving the bears is enabling us to work even closer with our Japanese colleagues and work on finding a better life for the hundreds of other bears living in captivity across Japan. We are already working with some of the facilities housing these bears who are making positive welfare improvements for their animals, and there is much more we can do.

There is no single solution to some of the conditions currently facing wild animals in captivity in Japan, but one by one, we’re addressing each separate issue and working with the best people who can help instigate change. From training the vets and wild animal carers working in zoos, to the animal welfare organisations and their staff working on the ground in Japan, from meeting the Ministry of Environment’s animal welfare authorities to discuss setting standards for the country’s zoos, to continuing to develop a trusted, respected relationship with JAZA, so those standards can be rolled out and continually developed – we have huge hope for the future welfare of captive animals across the country.

And if we’re ever feeling a bit overwhelmed, we’re spurred on by positive feedback, like this recent comment from an animal care colleague in Japan: “Because of Wild Welfare and your visit, I now really want to learn about animal welfare and care for my animals, thank you for inspiring me and my team.” 

Working with caring, compassionate people who want to see good animal welfare become part of the country’s new image, we are making a difference and we look forward to the day when animal welfare becomes the norm in Japan and is no longer a new concept.

Image © Pelican from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons: A red panda climbing in its zoo enclosure