R.I.P. Hanako

This morning, I woke up to the news that Hanako the elephant had died at the age of 69. According to media reports I’ve read, she was found in the morning lying on her side in her indoor enclosure, unable to get up. She passed away in the afternoon. It is believed that she died naturally, of old age. I am hoping this was indeed the case, because it would mean she was not excessively suffering and died a peaceful death. The zoo is conducting an autopsy, so we will know for certain soon.

My reaction is a mixture of shock, sadness, anger and relief — relief that she no longer has to suffer.

Last October, I wrote a blog post expressing how I felt about Hanako’s plight. Upon reading it, Belgian elephant activist Rita Claessens started an online petition calling to help her. The petition took off, and to date has gathered nearly half a million signatures from people around the world. The global outcry presented us with a unique opportunity: to kick-start a grassroots campaign to help better Hanako’s life. First, Hanako’s zoo agreed to meet with me regarding Hanako’s situation. Then, with the help of many, I was able to raise enough funds to travel to Tokyo with elephant welfare expert Carol Buckley. In early March we went to see Hanako at her zoo and met with her keepers and zoo staff. Carol then presented the zoo with a report of her assessments and recommendations for improving Hanako’s welfare.

After the trip, I was able to gain the backup of a number of global NGOs who for decades have been working to improve the welfare and care of captive animals around the world.

They included the Born Free Foundation in the UK and Zoocheck in Canada, who collectively reached out to the zoo with an offer: to send an animal behavioral consultant over to help them more smoothly and effectively execute on Carol’s suggestions for Hanako. (*The zoo had begun to carry out some suggestions in Carol’s report, such as increasing the amount of care and time Hanako received from her keepers. But it simply wasn’t fast enough. You can read more about these specific actions HERE on the Hanako FAQ page.) Also, it was evident from the time Carol and I spent at the zoo that the staff there simply were not well-educated in elephant care and behavior and needed help.

Zoocheck also enlisted the help of a Japanese organization called Voice for Zoo Animals to join the cause from on the ground, in Tokyo. Together, they continued negotiations with the Inokashira Park Zoo and pressed local politicians to support the campaign to improve Hanako’s welfare. As of this week, we were at the point of confirming with the zoo whether they would consent to having the behavioral expert come to help. If they didn’t accept the offer, the plan was to put more public and media pressure on them again to move faster to better Hanako’s life before it was too late. We always knew the clock was ticking for her, as she was so old.

In the end, Hanako passed away before these next steps could be taken.

One thing that always struck me about Hanako, is that she had lived on this earth longer than my own mother: yet she had such a long, tragic life in comparison. Hanako was torn away from her family in Thailand as a baby and taken to Japan. When she was an adolescent she was moved around the country as part of a traveling zoo. She tried to run away. Who knows what sort of abuse or punishment she endured back then. Then, after being moved to her current zoo, she was forced to spend the rest of her 60-plus years of life entirely alone, in a small concrete enclosure. She had no soft dirt or grass to stand on or freedom to roam. Most tragically, she was deprived of any true, lasting companionship—which is crucial to an elephant’s overall well-being. The crowds that came to see her brought her no joy. They never stayed long and Hanako was bothered by the loud sounds they made. The keepers who she grew attached to — in the absence of other elephants — always ended up leaving her. She was so bored and lonely.

I wish there was more we could have done for Hanako, much much sooner.

I hope that Hanako’s legacy will be to inspire her fans in Japan and elsewhere to better educate themselves on elephant welfare and work to expose and improve the living conditions of the many other captive zoo elephants who need us. I have just heard news today that as we speak, a Japanese zoo is trying to import 4 wild-captured elephants from Myanmar. These acts must be stopped. No more Hanakos.

Rest in peace, Hanako. You will not be forgotten.

  • A fund for Hanako still remains with about half of the donations left over that were raised for her via my fundraising campaign. I ended the fundraising campaign immediately after learning of Hanako’s death but the platform needs a few days to close it down completely. I’ve been informed by Indiegogo that the campaign will end at 11:59PM on May 28, 2016 and be closed forever.
  • The Help Hanako team (with the consultation of experienced NGOs and campaigners) will carefully decide next steps for the remaining funds. Compared to what other major animal welfare NGOs, sanctuaries and organizations have in their donation pools (in the hundreds of thousands and millions), Hanako’s is a small, grassroots campaign. Comparatively, with our $18,000 (approx.), we only have a limited amount funding to work with. We will need to take some time to carefully decide what will benefit the most amount of elephants in need. One idea we are exploring is to divert them towards a campaign to help expose the unknown situation of other captive elephants in Japan —in Hanako’s honour. But we will need the help of others to carry such a larger campaign out.
  • There is some talk of using it for a statue of Hanako. We believe the funds will be better invested in the living “Hanakos” who need our help.
  • Hanako’s campaign was always so rushed because we knew at 69-years-old, every day the clock was ticking for her. Now, we have some time. I hope we can use it wisely, as she would have hoped, and do the best thing.

Finally, thank you so much to all of the supporters who stepped at all points in time to help Hanako in the past 6 months. There are countless people who, without hesitation, jumped in with words of encouragement and — most importantly — helped spread the word or made a donation. There are too many names to list all of them here. So here is just a tiny handful of the crucial contributors who lent their talents and hearts to the cause:

Nadia Marzorati, Rita Claessens, Tim Hornyak, Rob Laidlaw, Chris Draper, Cory Crowther, Yuri Kageyama, Judy Stone, Hiroko Nakagawa, Evan Aagaard, Diana Luong, Sandy Pell, Benjamin Parks, Osamu Shibata…etc…. the list goes on and on… more names will be added here …