When I met Hanako less than two months ago, it was obvious to me that she was nearing the end of her life.
Hanako had spent close to seven decades in one of the most deprived environments I’ve seen.
Every surface in her barn and yard was covered with unyielding, moisture-robbing, highly abrasive concrete. There was not a blade of grass, a tree or a patch of dirt anywhere in the small space.
While at the zoo I learned that Hanako had recently stopped lying down to sleep. Instead of spending several hours each night on her side sleeping, she spent a lesser amount of time leaning against the barn wall, dozing.
After studying her records it was clear that Hanako’s appetite and drinking habits had also changed. The times when she would refuse to eat grew more and more frequent.
Hanako also refused to use her outside pool or allow her keepers to bathe her. As result her skin was dehydrated and her legs were stained with urine.
The staff could not account for these changes in Hanako’s behavior. But such changes are to be expected of an elephant of Hanako’s age.
It was heartbreaking to observe that her eyesight was failing, she shivered continually and she was physically inactive.
Each morning, until at least a month before her death, Hanako would walk the few feet from the barn to the outside concrete yard. There she would stand and engage in stereotypical behavior for hours before taking the few labored steps back inside her barn at the end of the day.
My first afternoon at the zoo I witnessed a change in Hanako’s behavior. Without any obvious provocation she seemed to startle from her catatonic state and began moving around her small yard.
Then the barn door opened and she became vocal and animated. She approached the door, placed her foot in the track and engaged in the most bizarre stereotypic routine I’d ever seen. She pushed her toe into the track, pulled back as if her foot was caught in it, removed her foot and then repeated the sequence twelve times. Keepers later told me she did this stereotypical sequence every time before she entered the barn. Not always twelve times—sometimes more, sometimes less.
After completing her stereotypic ritual, Hanako rushed into the barn, moving with an uncharacteristic urgency as if someone was trying to keep her from entering. Her eyes lit up and she became very vocal.
I assumed she was excited about the pile of fresh vegetables and grass on the floor. But it was not the food. It was her keepers she was focused on.
Hanako was obviously excited to see her keepers and anxious for them to pet her. She offered her foot through the steel bars that divided the elephant and keeper spaces, leaned up against the bars and turned to receive pets on her backside and hip.
She chattered to her keepers the entire time, soliciting and savoring their every touch. This was a side of Hanako I had not seen—her comfort with and attachment to her keepers.
The keepers appeared to enjoy the interaction as well. But fifteen minutes later, Hanako’s allocated social time was over. As the keepers turned their attention to barn duties, I watched as Hanako slipped back into her detached state of mind.
The thermostat was set, water barrel checked, food swept into a neat pile, lights turned off, doors closed and keepers gone again until tomorrow. Once again Hanako was alone.
Failed by the system
Hanako was denied a natural life of freedom with her natal family simply because humans are intrigued by this species. But humans failed her time and time again.
Even if they wanted to, the zoo staff was unable to evaluate Hanako’s health scientifically. Hanako and her keepers weren’t trained to carry out basic health checks and her antiquated facilities did not provide a safe environment for medical testing or treatment. Aside from tranquilizing Hanako, there was no safe way to compile a comprehensive medical work up.
The government owns and runs all the zoos in Japan. The keepers are rotated throughout the zoo system, transferred to a different zoo every two years. Knowing the social complexity of elephants, having keepers rotate in and out of Hanako’s life so often would have been stressful, even traumatic.
Decades ago Hanako had an extremely close relationship with one of her keepers. After he died she reportedly became aggressive and as result was kept chained for a length of time.
It is reasonable to assume that Hanako suffered both physically and psychologically from her lack of companionship and physical activity. In Hanako’s case, her social isolation was the most detrimental. But the damage inflicted on her by her isolation was never measured.
Taking comfort in the familiar
Hanako had a decades-long reputation of reacting negatively to changes in her facility and routine. As she aged, her tendency to be inflexible increased.
Weeks before Hankako died, the zoo installed a safety fence on the outside wall of her barn. Their hope was that by providing a secure outside space, the keepers and Hanako would spend more quality time together, something we all agreed would benefit her. Although the fence was not one of my recommendations, I completely understood why the zoo made the effort.
Unfortunately, directly following fence construction, Hanako refused to leave her barn. Since the construction was the most obvious change in Hanako’s life, it was blamed for her behavior.
In her tender psychological state Hanako might have been frightened and even traumatized by the noisy power tools drilling into the wall of her barn. The noise and vibrations most certainly could be heard and felt by Hanako, locked inside. Although it is reasonable to believe she was upset by the construction, another scenario should also be considered.
Hanako was dying, growing weaker day by day. Apparently she derived comfort from being inside her barn. She could conserve energy she would otherwise have wasted walking out to a barren yard that provided neither shade nor shelter from the cold. In her condition, the barn was likely the most comfortable place for her.
Too late for Hanako but not for other elephants
The zoo said that a necropsy will be conducted. The results will most likely point to death by natural causes. It is true that Hanako’s body condition was good for an elephant of her age, but there is no way to determine what her emotional and psychological condition were.
Against all odds, Hanako lived to the ripe old age of 69. Surprisingly, she was not emaciated or crippled and did not develop osteomyelitis or the pressure wounds that are so common among elephants kept on concrete. But even though her body served her well, captivity took its toll on her heart and mind.
Hanako’s celebrity increased near the end of her life as she became the focus of a worldwide effort to move her. It’s unfortunate her deprived existence didn’t come to light five years ago, ten years ago or even two decades ago, when she could have benefited from being moved.
But, although Hanako did not benefit personally from her celebrity, other elephants will.
Immediately after Hanako’s death the zoo announced the good news that it will not replace her with another elephant.
The truth is that Hanako is irreplaceable.