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Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Communing with wild animals in Japan's famous culture of cute


In the first of a series of recent articles about nonindigenous animal species in Japan, the Asahi Shimbun reported comments made at this year's annual meeting of the International Association of Falconry. The meeting, which took place earlier this month in Prague, saw the chairperson criticize the Japanese media for emphasizing the value of three Harris hawks that had been stolen from an Ibaraki pet shop in May 2004. By saying that the hawks were worth 5 million yen each, the chairperson implied, the media gave the impression that birds of prey were simply expensive objects.

Given the general image of falconry as being a sport of the rich and titled, the media's interest in the price was understandable. A more vital question is: What's a bird of prey that's indigenous to the Americas doing in an Ibaraki pet shop? The Species Conservation Act states that hunting birds which are native to Japan cannot be used "for hobby purposes," but there is no law that specifically forbids falconry using non-native species. As long as you don't violate international laws pertaining to endangered animals you can import birds of prey from anywhere.

Apparently, a lot of people have been taking advantage of this loophole. According to the Asahi series, 8,972 birds of prey were imported to Japan between 2002 and 2004. Environmental groups find this development alarming since it is believed that many of these birds are now in the wild and mating with indigenous birds. In June, a new law went into effect controlling the import of nonindigenous animal species, but birds of prey were not covered. Thus, Harris hawks, Russian eagles, and other hunting birds will join the likes of raccoons and civets as foreign invaders wreaking havoc on Japan's ecosystem.

Though the Asahi series reveals much about the possible harm that nonindigenous species can cause, it doesn't say much about why people want to own these animals. The raccoon problem was caused by demand sparked by a famous 1970s animated TV show about a raccoon. The new animal import control law may make that sort of boom impossible, but there are still a lot of people who think it's cool to live with a wild animal.

A current TV program that reinforces this idea is " Shimura Zoo" (Nihon TV, Thursday, 7 p.m.), a variety show hosted by comedian Ken Shimura. Most animal series are about pets, or they are nature shows, but Shimura's explores the meeting of humans and wild animals for entertainment purposes.

The bulk of each program is devoted to a segment in which a wild animal "lives" with a celebrity in a normal human dwelling for a period of time. So far a sea lion and even a sloth have had the honor of being guests in a Japanese home. Young tarento Becky recently played host to half a dozen ostriches. The younger three birds were allowed in her house, while the three adults wandered around her backyard. Besides explaining some elementary points of ostrich anatomy, the segment had nothing to teach and, in fact, offered little in the way of entertainment. The whole point was its novelty premise: here are some ostriches living with a young star. The conclusion was that "it's difficult to keep ostriches at home," as if it were a lifestyle option people might be contemplating.

In another regular segment, a chimpanzee named Pan runs errands with a bulldog named James. Here, we're supposed to believe that these two "pals" do everything themselves. In a recent segment, Pan's trainer "instructed" him to take James to the vet for his annual health checkup. We see Pan leading James by a leash through town to the doctor's office where he even submits the proper paperwork, supposedly with no human assistance. By imposing a narrative on the segment -- James is afraid of the vet and Pan has to somehow coax him into going -- its artificiality becomes obvious: Chimps are people, too!

Probably the most insidious misrepresentation of human-animal relationships is the promotion of oyako kizuna (parent-child bonding). On Shimura's show, a comedian went to a preserve in China and took care of a panda for a few days, but indoors under circumstances not unlike those experienced by Becky and the ostriches. The whole point of the segment was the ending, when the comedian bid a tearful farewell and the panda supposedly felt likewise.

It's a childish fantasy that's exacerbated by Japan's famous culture of cute, but animals don't have to be adorable to be coveted. Last month, a 4-meter Burmese python escaped from its owner's home in Saitama Prefecture and two exotic scorpions were found scurrying around an apartment building in Osaka. The attraction is being in close proximity to something that you normally would never meet.

That's also the attraction of zoos, where the human-animal interface is supposed to be approached more sensibly. But the killing last week of a safari park employee in Shizuoka by brown bears demonstrated that even professionals can't always guess how animals are going to behave.

This seems to be the case even when the intentions are good. NHK recently broadcast a documentary about Peace, a polar bear that was raised by humans in a zoo in Kochi. Polar bears do not reproduce readily in captivity. Of the 122 that have been born in Japanese zoos, only 16 lived more than six months.

The documentary charted the efforts of one zookeeper who made it his full-time job to raise Peace. Over a period of some six years the bear and the man really did become like child-and-parent, but the results were not good. Peace now displays signs of a serious nervous disorder that eases somewhat when the zookeeper visits him. The miracle is that Peace has survived. The tragedy is that he is no longer a polar bear.



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