April 27, 2018


'What Are the Roles of Zoos Today?' - Interview with Director of the Popular Asahiyama Zoo

Keywords: Ecosystems / Biodiversity Education Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.188 (April 2018)


The Asahiyama Zoo, located in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, Japan, opened in 1967 and is operated by the city. In 1997, the zoo started a new approach of displaying animals in settings that let visitors observe natural behavior, unlike the traditional approach that focused mainly on displaying animals' physical features. Although the annual number of visitors fell to 260,000 in fiscal 1996 after peaking in fiscal 1983 at 597,000, every time the zoo added a new facility for displaying animal behavior, it attracted more visitors, eventually surpassing 3 million in fiscal 2006. The zoo has created quite a stir in how Japanese zoos should display animals.

Aiming to raise awareness of global environmental conservation and the coexistence of people and wildlife, Asahiyama Zoo also offers educational programs under the theme of "Communicating the brilliance of life." What are roles of zoos in this age of accelerating destruction of nature and climate change? In this issue, we introduce an interview with Gen Bando, the Director of the Asahiyama Zoo. (Interviewer: Junko Edahiro, Chief Executive, JFS)

Feeling Nature

Edahiro: Although environmental problems are escalating and drawing increasing public attention, nature destruction and climate change still continue. Under these circumstances, what are the roles of zoos?

Bando: We don't really feel nature very much in our everyday lives, although we often do hear about environmental destruction and endangered species. But, I believe that most people don't really feel much nature or have a sense of crisis.

Under such circumstances, the existence of zoos is becoming more meaningful as places where people can feel nature. I believe that zoos are a gateway for people to learn about nature. Zoos should help visitors to become aware of nature by showing the current situations of animals and providing opportunities to have contact with nature and animals. That should be the most important role of zoos.


Edahiro: What do you mean by "feeling nature"?

Bando: For example, even elementary students know that tigers are in danger of extinction. However, they cannot actually feel that tigers are truly living creatures just by reading books or watching videos about them. Tigers are living at a zoo and may look back at visitors responding to their behavior. Visitors can feel that tigers exist for real, which I believe is the potential of zoos.

There is a real entity living there. As we see the animals grow, we learn that their wild habitats are disappearing and that we live in an era in which people benefit or profit from the loss of their habitats. At that point, I believe that people realize it is not just someone else's problem, but that it involves them.

Edahiro: Do you think that in today's society, people live without a sense of other people's lives?

In the old days, people lived together while relating to and understanding one another, even though they periodically did have conflicts. Society was basically like this. Today, society is densely populated but many people are not really connected with others. It feels like society does not really function as it once did.

Edahiro: Speaking of which, the wolves looked like they were playing together today before they howled. Were they actually playing?

Bando: There are playful aspects, but with every interaction there are also subtle changes in hierarchy within the group. Even so, they have rules for conflict, and they don't cross that line. This is really a society. No animals live just to be friendly and get along. They can live together happily only when they make an effort to "understand" each other.


Balance and Harmony

Edahiro: Applying this thinking to relationships among people, perhaps we could roughly classify human relations with others as "having no connection," "getting along well," or "being in conflict."

Bando: I believe that language is a special capability of humans. With language we can talk about the past, we can talk about the future, and we can think. But despite our advantages of having language and this kind of advanced society, we have begun to abandon our own relationships with others. When people feel strained, they tend to focus only on themselves. It feels like this is where the world is at today, so things are difficult, I think.

Edahiro: In your book, "Humans and Other Creatures, the Connection of Life -- A Message from the Asahiyama Zoo," you wrote that even though animals cannot count, somehow they are able to maintain a delicate balance. Can you say something about that?

Bando: That's right. They maintain balance and harmony. In contrast, we humans can count, but we are completely unable to maintain balance and harmony. Humans saw birds flying in the air and wanted to be able to fly too, so we invented the airplane. We wanted to swim like the fish, so we invented the submarine. We wanted to run faster, so we invented the car. We are driven by desire.

I am amazed just by watching birds in the zoo. The oriental tit (Parus minor) sits on a branch just like the tree sparrow (Passer montanus). When the tit finds a sunflower seed, for instance, it picks up the seed with its beak, places it on a branch, holds it down with its claws, and pecks it to eat. But the sparrow cannot do that, and is simply not wired to want to do that. That's why both birds can live in harmony, not needing to compete with each other. I don't know whether it's right to say that the sparrow has less desire. But if it wanted to, I believe it would be able to eat exactly the same way as the tit, because both sit on a branch the same way.

It's amazing. Just think. Dozens of different kinds of birds can all live on the same mountain. Humans would probably compete with each other. I think that humans and other animals are totally different in how they feel or how they process things in their brains. That's why, although they are killed by humans, they don't hate us or strike back to get even. They just die. There is some kind of real harmony there.

What Do We Lack?

Edahiro: Do you think that humans are naturally wired to steal and destroy out of greed or desire? Or did humans evolve to be this way?

Bando: I think that humans are naturally such a creature. The fall of past civilizations is said to be caused by human-induced local environmental destruction. Natural disasters such as big floods inevitably occur. Civilization might be falling right now. Other creatures are dying out more now than in the age of dinosaurs due to the advance science and technology.

Edahiro: What should humans do to be able to coexist with other creatures?

Bando: We should take a pause at some point. The key is whether we can all think about maybe it's time to subtract one thing, little by little. I think that's possible. When personal computers came out, there was so much hype about the CPU power, and people bought new models one after another. But I think that some people are now starting to realize that maybe we don't need that much.


I believe that the movement of going back to nature once again is built upon such reflection. The future will change if we really think about what makes us happy. Are we happiest when we are chasing our desires? Or is it when we feel a gentle breeze and are surrounded by nature? In fact, a lot of things are happening, like more and more people prefer nature-oriented products or a slow life approach.

Our zoo started a crowd-funding campaign for the conservation of rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), aiming to raise 10 million yen (about US$88,500), and it eventually collected 20 million yen (about US$177,000). I think if there is some kind of platform, showing that "We have this goal and if you support us, we can achieve it," a lot of people will potentially support what they cannot achieve by themselves.

So, if people will donate money to projects such as one to ensure that orangutans are still living with humans on the Earth in the future, things will definitely change. A zoo is an organization that can anticipate these kinds of things earlier than the general population. Therefore, we at the zoo need to show concretely that these animals exist, and that we are aware of threats or challenges facing them, and that we are going to do something about it, so please support us.

Edahiro: Earlier, during feeding time for the seals, a zoo staff member was explaining various situations about seals. I thought it was very good. We can feel that the creatures we are looking at are cute, or we feel sorry for them, or we think we should do something for them. But our imagination may not go beyond that.

Bando: Talking about the conflict situation facing the Kurdish people in the Middle East, for instance, the general public may not take much notice of a news report that dozens of people were killed in air strikes. But if you hear that a student from your former school was killed in a traffic accident, you might pay more attention. The touch point is important. It depends on whether you consider a situation to be someone else's problem or your own.

However, in today's society, people do not want to be involved in others' affairs, and tend to refrain from taking serious action on something that is going on out of their sight. People lack a sense of urgency about it. If people act like that when it comes to other human beings, obviously there is also a tendency not to care if animals are dying out of sight.

I think people have too much information today. As a result, people are apt to see only what is convenient for themselves. People tend to see only one side of things and accuse others, saying "It's their own responsibility." Since few think they themselves may be responsible for something bad, few say "It's my responsibility."

Edahiro: It seems many people are unable to have a calm dialogue or to listen to the other side and stop pushing their own views.

Bando: This may be because people have had no such training. Without looking into the other person's eyes in a conversation, one cannot see the hurt or distress that words can cause. They haven't accumulated the experience of feeling hurt or hurting someone else, so they may act impulsively, and it becomes a matter of "me" versus "you." That's how I see it.

Edahiro: You said that people have lost a sense of feeling about others even at the zoo. Do you think people have lost the sense of empathy for people who are even right there before their own eyes?

Bando: One cannot feel anything without "antennas." We need to help children put up lots of antennas (or sensors) to tune in to others around them.

Roles of Zoos

Edahiro: Do you think that zoos have a larger role as the world becomes more virtual?

Bando: Animals have been living in some kind of harmony and balance with each other for millions of years. Humans can change their perspective on life in a matter of decades. I would like the zoo, with its constant mechanisms of living, to serve as a place where people can perceive how they themselves are changing and that there may be another way.


There are strong odors at our zoo, and occasionally someone complains about that. However, it is rare for someone who is enjoying watching the penguins to say that the penguins smell bad. When people see someone in a positive light, they can accept the other's entire existence, including smell, just like one who accepts the smell of a person he or she loves. One purpose of zoos, I think, is to help people to realize and accept that this is the natural smell of a penguin (or other animals).

Edahiro: Zoos are often considered to be a place for children accompanied by adults, but it may be good for adults themselves to visit there. Is the number of adult visitors increasing?

Bando: Since adults can change society, I hope that many adults will visit the zoo and become more aware. For example, someone may recall what it was like decades ago, and wonder why things have changed now. If people who are playing a key role in society can discover something here, there is greater potential.

Edahiro: Can you comment on the business aspects of running a zoo?


Bando: Zoo admission fees are inexpensive in Japan. People often estimate the value of something in terms of the money they have paid, so there is a tendency not to think much of zoos. One advantage of low fees is that people can easily enjoy zoos. However, people who take an easy look at animals may not fully understand the difficulties that those animals are facing.

The Penguin Walk event at our zoo is very popular, but this is actually aimed at keeping penguins fit and healthy during the winter when they tend to lack exercise. They take a stroll even when there are no visitors. So we started to show the strolls to visitors. Penguins are just waddling; there is nothing special. These ordinary things may touch people's hearts. Seals are also just swimming, not giving a performance, but visitors can be impressed with the seals' ordinary life. I don't think that animals have their value because they do something special. The same goes for humans.

Edahiro: Yes, there should be value in just being the way they are.

Bando: There is something absolutely wonderful and exciting in ordinary things. With this in mind, I have been thinking a lot about how animals just being themselves can appeal to people. Because it is unsustainable to expect them to do something that is unnatural.

Edahiro: Thank you so much for this thought-provoking discussion.

Written by Junko Edahiro