Elderly elephant, aged 69 dies in Tokyo zoo

Tokyo: An elephant that set off a petition drive to move her out of her concrete pen in a small zoo in Japan has died at age 69.

Hanako, or 'flower child,' was a gift from the Thai government in 1949 and lived in Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo since she was 2. She was Japan's oldest elephant and had a long life for captive Asian elephants.

Zoo spokesman Naoya Ohashi said Hanako was discovered lying on her side yesterday morning and repeated efforts to raise her upright were not successful. She died peacefully in the afternoon.

He said an autopsy would be conducted to determine the cause. Regardless of age, an elephant that remains on its side for a long time can suffer organ damage. The petition drive garnered support around the world from people who thought Hanako should be moved to a Thai sanctuary, but the zoo said she was too old to move. An independent expert who examined her, American Carol Buckley, agreed with the zoo's assessment. Staying in a sanctuary with other elephants would bewilder Hanako after living so many years alone, she said in March.

Buckley instead suggested improvements be made where Hanako was kept and for the zookeepers to spend more time with her. But when the zoo put up new fencing, Hanako was frightened and refused to go outdoors. Her regular birthday celebration, when the Thai Embassy brought Hanako fresh strawberries every year, was canceled in March. Hanako gradually weakened and had been eating less in recent months.

"I'm filled with sorrow," zoo deputy director and general curator Hidemasa Hori said of the animal's death. "Today is that inevitable moment that always comes when one's job is working with animals in a zoo. Hanako was the symbol of Japan's peace and growth after World War II. And so an era has come to an end."

Ulara Nakagawa, a Vancouver resident whose blog inspired the petition drive for Hanako, said it was sad how the elephant had spent her life in an enclosure without dirt or grass and water to splash around in. "Most tragic is that she was deprived of true, lasting companionship, which is crucial to an elephant's overall well-being," she wrote in an email.

"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," she wrote. "Rest in peace, Hanako. You will not be forgotten."

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