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5 Most Commonly Asked Questions on Captive Elephant Advocacy in Japan

5 Most Commonly Asked Questions on Captive Elephant Advocacy in Japan

Call with Rob Laidlaw, Executive Director, Zoocheck, on Captive Elephant Welfare in Japan: August 2019

Rob Laidlaw is the executive director of Zoocheck, an international wildlife protection organization established in 1984 to promote and protect the interests and well-being of wild animals.

The purpose of this conference call was to have Rob address some of the most frequently asked questions regarding Miyako the elephant/captive elephant advocacy.

The 5 commonly asked questions covered:

  1. Can Miyako be moved to another zoo in Japan?
  2. Is it a great risk to move Miyako within Japan? 
  3. Would it be better instead to enlarge and enrich Miyako’s enclosure?
  4. Miyako has been alone all her life. What happens if she doesn’t like another elephant?
  5. How likely is it that the owner of the Utsunomiya Zoo will take people to court if they continue to speak critically of how the zoo is keeping Miyako?


1. Can Miyako be moved to another zoo in Japan?

Yes, zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and game reserves throughout the world routinely move elephants from one location to another, typically by truck, but occasionally by air as well. For some elephants, such as individuals being moved from one wild reserve to another, being moved is an isolated event in the elephant’s life. In other cases, such as with most circus, and some zoo, elephants, being transported is a routine occurrence. 

Moving elephants safely is not easy or cheap, even in the best of circumstances. Being large, potentially dangerous animals, subject to different forms of management that may or may not allow them to be handled, there are a variety of factors to consider in every elephant transport. 

My own organization has arranged for the transport of elephants on several occasions. One situation involved a single elephant subject to free contact management being moved by truck from British Columbia to Tennessee. The move was about as simple as an elephant move can be as the transporter was the recipient facility and they were already equipped to handle the ground transport. In another case, the transport of three adult elephants subject to protected contact management from the Toronto Zoo to the PAWS sanctuary in California (approx. 4,300 km journey) was organized from scratch and therefore required a great deal of planning. That move involved two 18 wheel transport trucks, each with a flatbed trailer, a follow vehicle and a team of more than a dozen people, including drivers, elephant handlers and veterinarians. The preparation for the move also required:

  • Soliciting the services of an elephant trainer/behavourist to teach elephants to enter the transport crates,
  • Construction of three steel transport crates  – measured 3.5 meters high x 5.5 meters long x 2.46 meters wide – at a cost of approximately Cdn $40,000 each, 
  • Installing heavy duty straps to lift elephants if they went down during transport,
  • Installing infra-red cameras in each elephant crate and wireless system to send camera signals to follow vehicle so team can monitor animals, 
  • Making large fitted covers for crates in the event of bad weather,
  • Installing heaters in each elephant crate
  • Acquire three large steel trays that each crate could be lowered into (to contain elephant waste during transport) on trailer,
  • Arranging for a giant crane at both ends to lift crates with elephants inside onto trailers,
  • Acquiring two weeks of elephant feed, water tank and approximately $10,000 in veterinary supplies,
  • Acquiring export permits and other permissions, as required,
  • Arranging for emergency stop locations (other zoos that can handle elephants) on route to the destination.

Elephant moves are entirely feasible, even for elderly or infirm elephants, but they need to be done professionally, with the safety and needs of the animals in mind, and the actual transport should be done as quickly as possible.

2. Is it a great risk to move Miyako within Japan?

There is always a risk when moving animals and that risk can never be entirely eliminated, but it can be mitigated, often to a substantial degree. In the case of elephants being moved, proper preparations for a move must take place to ensure it is done professionally, humanely, safely and quickly. It is also important that elephant moves not occur during potentially problematic times of the year, such as the extreme heat of summer or the cold of winter as these pose significant challenges during transport. Additionally, moves must be planned with the assumption there may be unforeseen issues arise, such as vehicle accident or breakdown or an elephant going down (a potentially life-threatening emergency situation). A properly prepared professional transport will mitigate a great deal of the risk. 

What many people do not consider when discussing elephant moves is the risk to the animal of staying where it is. Even in the case of elderly or infirm elephants, the potential benefits to the animal (e.g., freedom of movement, enhanced welfare, ability to socialize with other elephants) may greatly outweigh the risks of transport. For elephants that are young or middle-aged, especially those that are socially isolated, the potential benefits of being in more appropriate accommodation elsewhere may be exponentially better. In other words, the risks may be worth the return. 

3. Would it be better to enlarge and enrich Miyako’s enclosure?

No, the zoo has a small footprint so it does not have the space to construct an elephant enclosure of sufficient size. Additionally, any elephant enclosure adhering to modern standards would require a considerable expenditure of zoo funds, probably in the range of more than US $2 million. Even if the zoo was able to construct an appropriate enclosure, the issue of Miyako’s social isolation and being in an inappropriate climate will remain. 

With regard to improving Miyako’s life by increasing the complexity of her enclosure through the addition of furnishings, objects, food enrichment and other kinds of enrichment that might provide her with variety and stimulation, she would benefit but those tactics would only provide her with temporary relief. The lack of space and meaningful environmental complexity, her inability to make choices and have control over her life, social isolation and Utsunomiya’s inappropriate climate cannot be addressed in her current situation.

4. Miyako has been alone all of her life. What happens if she doesn’t like another elephant?

Elephants are like people in that they don’t all get along, but that shouldn’t be a reason for not moving Miyako. The chances are she will get along with other elephants and her life will be immeasurably enriched because of it. The reality is that all elephants are hyper-social and need to be with other elephants. But even if Miyako didn’t get along with other elephants, if she was able to contact them through barriers or communicate with them through sounds, infrasound or in other ways, her life would be profoundly more stimulating and complex.. And, of course, going to a new environment with more space and new sights, sounds and smells would provide Miyako with enhanced health and welfare.

5. Will Utsunomiya Zoo take critics to court?

Throughout the world, people or institutions that are criticized for their keeping and use of animals often resort to threatening whoever it is that’s criticizing them. Usually these  threats are only meant to intimidate a critic into silence and they rarely ever go further than that. My own organization has received many of these kinds of threats but not one has ever moved beyond being just a threat There’s no 100% sure way of avoiding a lawsuit but you can insulate yourself somewhat by:

  •  Making sure that everything you say is accurate and is based on evidence,
  • Only commenting on what you observe or have evidence for and not publicly guessing at why someone is doing something. In other words, don’t guess at motivations for behaviours. Just describe what someone is doing and let their actions tell the story.

This conference call is likely the first in a series, with the goal of providing you with information and support regarding Miyako, and captive elephant welfare in Japan and in general. The next topic will likely be: “Tools and Tips from Rob: How to Advocate Effectively and Strategically for Captive Elephants.” 

If you would like to stay notified on future events such as this, please make sure to follow on Facebook or Twitter for updates! 

Listen to the call on our YouTube channel as well.

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