We’re not put off by the pungent odors. The pricey admission fees and awful concession options don’t scare us away, either. Each year, 150 million Americans visit the zoo, a simulacrum of nature writer Diane Ackerman describes
as “an oasis in the crowded, noisy, stressful, morally ambiguous world where humans tend to congregate.”
I find zoos largely depressing, but I seem to be in the minority. A 2009 study demonstrated that zoo visitors in Japan, after peering at animals for the day, reported significantly lower blood pressure and reduced stress. There’s something soothing about interacting with our brothers and sisters from the Animal Kingdom, even in a highly-regulated environment. And when those creatures are abused in any serious way, we tend to freak out. “It’s the ultimate massacre of the innocents,” according to Ackerman, who wrote a book on the bombing of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. “The animals are silent victims, supposedly beyond our ideas of good and evil.”
This empathetic impulse helps explain why two major magazines
were simultaneously drawn to the story of the 2011 Zanesville “zoo” escape, the dramatic account of a troubled Ohio man
who released several dozen exotic animals on his 73-acre ranch before committing suicide and the law enforcement agents who were forced to hunt down those stray beasts before they ventured off the property. Similarly, our deep connection with vulnerable zoo animals informed the writing of Yukio Tsuchiya, who penned one of the most famous children’s stories in the history of Japanese literature, “The Pitiful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War
Most kids in the Land of the Rising Sun have read Tsuchiya’s short picture book
; since its initial release in 1951, the tale has been printed 163 different times and translated into English and French. For the last 44 years, on August 15, the critic and journalist Chieko Akiyama has even recited
the story on the radio to commemorate solemnly Japan’s exit from World War II. It’s basically a national text, though not for the delicate of heart.
The story is told from the perspective of a zookeeper at the renowned Ueno Zoo
in Tokyo, right before his country’s formal entrance into the war. As Tsuchiya writes, air raids were growing in frequency, which spooked the higher-ups in the Japanese Army. From the text: “The war had become more and more severe. Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day and night, like falling rain. What would happen if bombs hit the zoo? If the cages were broken and dangerous animals escaped to run wild through the city, it would be terrible!”
Facing this frightening possibility, the generals ordered the zookepers to poison all of the large animals in their collection. Ueno’s staff encountered no major obstacles until they approached their three performing elephants—John, Tonky, and Wanly. The elephants, it turns out, were too smart to eat tampered food. Shooting the mammals with a gun would be loud and barbaric. Their skin was too thick for lethal injections, too. The only option left was to starve the beasts to death, an act the tortured zookeepers could barely stand to perform. In one of the most arresting passages of the book, with enemy planes flying over the elephants’ dying bodies, one zookeeper who had tried to sneak food to the hungry animals wags his fist toward the sky and implores his nation’s enemies to “stop the war!” A New York Times
review of the English translation (March 12, 1989) called
“The Pitiful Elephants” a “powerful story of the byproducts of war.” That was the intention
of Tsuchiya, who paired gorgeous watercolor illustrations with his straightforward language "to let children know about the grief, fear, and sadness war produces.” “I hoped this book would implant some anti-war ideas into children's minds,” he added, “while I was praying for everyone to make his own effort for world peace."
A noble cause, indeed. Yet there’s one problem with “The Pitiful Elephants”: it’s not historically accurate. At all.
Ushio Hasegawa, in a 1981 article for a children’s literary quarterly, first called into question “the actual events upon which the story is based.” Other scholars of literature
(PDF) and East Asian history
, after reviewing primary and secondary documents from the time period, have backed up his criticisms. The book is a myth, relying on distorted interpretations of real-life events to fit his weighty, theatrical narrative.
This much is true: 24 animals from the zoo were put down in September 1943 at the behest of the Japanese military. Three of them were elephants, who starved to death. But Tokyo natives were not concerned with a bombing-induced escape; over 3 million paying customers visited the zoo in 1943, almost eclipsing the park’s attendance record, and no bombs were dropped on the city between the Doolittle Raid
in April 1942 and the first B-29 runs in November 1944. Rather, it was the governor of Tokyo, Ōdachi Shigeo, who worried that his constituents were not mentally prepared for the onslaught of war he knew was quickly approaching.
On August 16, 1943, the zoo’s acting director Fakuda Saburo was called into a meeting with his boss from the parks department, who reported to Ōdachi. According to Fakuda’s diary, the governor requested that the staff “kill the elephants and wild beasts by poison.” “When he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people,” Ueno’s former director, Koga Tadamichi, wrote in his memoir, “[Ōdachi] seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” In other words, by killing their own, the government (and the army by proxy) could emphasize both the urgency of the war and the ruthlessness of the Allied Forces. A win-win deception.
In late August, the conflicted zookeepers committed elephanticide, starving their herd. Several days later, on September 4, the metropolitan government held a memorial service at the zoo that was attended by several high-ranking Tokyo officials and hundreds of school children, who had been specifically targeted as an audience. In an interview with the local newspaper that day, Fakuda lied to a reporter on hand, describing the animals’ deaths as “an unavoidable measure that must naturally be taken.” And in the ensuing days, the zoo was flooded with letters from kids expressing outrage at the foreign soldiers that ostensibly forced the Japanese to protect their citizens in such an extreme fashion. The plan worked like a charm.
Tsuchiya eventually admitted that he’d modified some historical facts to make the story more appealing for young readers. The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation published its own picture book in 1982 that told the story more authentically, but it didn’t attract a wide audience. You can flip through a preview of the original here
Last night, my book club
met to talk about “Cutting for Stone
,” Abraham Verghese’s mythic tome about medicine and family. (The verdict on the novel was mixed; I found it engaging and affecting, though a bit simplistic.) The protagonist and narrator Marion, an Ethiopian-born doctor, is named after Marion Sims
, a 19th century American surgeon whose personal biography is novelistic in its own right.
Verghese initially describes Sims as “a simple practitioner in Alabama, USA, who had revolutionized women’s surgery.” That almost undersells the southerner’s varied accomplishments
. From his small private practice in Montgomery, Sims refined techniques to remedy painful ailments like cleft palate and newborn lockjaw. His major contribution to the field was a surgical treatment for vesico-vaginal and recto-vaginal fistulas
, a gruesome injury (of which I’ll spare you the grisly details) largely caused by prolonged labor or violent rape. In 1853, Sims moved to New York City, where he established the first hospital for women in the United States, and eventually opened up the Cancer Hospital, now known as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A monument
in his likeness still stands at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street in Central Park.
His legacy, however, is severely complicated by the approach he employed to perfect his craft: operating on slave women. From a 2003 story
in the New York Times
:By all accounts, Sims, like a vast majority of his antebellum Southern white counterparts, was a strong proponent of slavery. Thus, when Sims wanted fistula patients, he simply bought or rented the slaves from their owners. Sims operated on at least 10 slave women from 1846 to 1849, perfecting his technique. It took dozens of operations before he finally reported success, having used special silver sutures to close the fistulas. Three of the slaves -- Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy -- all underwent multiple procedures without anesthesia, which had recently become available. Sims's records show that he operated on Anarcha 30 times.Sims's persistence aroused some alarm, and several physicians urged him to stop experimenting. In response, he later reported that the slave women had been ''clamorous'' for the operation and had even assisted him with surgery.
Some activists in East Harlem have requested
that the city take down Sims’ statue, though a 2007 petition circulated by New York City Council member Charles Barron fell short. Meanwhile, the medical condition the doctor helped eradicate in the developed world is still ravaging women in sections of Africa and Asia where obstetric care is scarce. Though statistics are difficult to gather, the United Nations Population Fund estimates
that 2 million women remain untreated globally and at least 50,000 to 100,000 new cases occur each year. Over the past decade, Nicholas Kristof has devoted several columns
to the problem, one the media or global leaders seldom discuss because the patients affected are almost all poor and stigmatized. Here’s another reason domestic pols with a bully pulpit need to correct the misconception
that America overspends on foreign aid.
Borders filed for bankruptcy
yesterday, which basically bites.
Yes, Borders (and Barnes & Noble) probably strong-armed
publishers into giving large retailers massive discounts independent operators couldn’t secure. And yes, many of their wounds are self-inflicted
: weak leadership, too many unprofitable stores, sinking
DVD and CD sales, and poor adaption to the digital age.
Still, I’m sympathetic. About a decade ago, Borders opened up a store by Lincoln Mall in Matteson, and it was literally the only book store I could get to as a teen without driving at least 25 minutes. Like so many of its new locations, it probably didn’t make Borders HQ a ton of money, but it always seemed
crowded. It’s a big loss for a region starved for retail options.
It’s also ironic (and sad) that the business strategy of the Ann Arbor mainstay was undercut by improvements in technology, given that the company’s success depended largely on the ingenious way its founders utilized computer software to manage its inventory. The Borders brothers’ early computer system used past sales, local tastes, and seasonal preferences to predict what books consumers were aching to purchase on any given day. This allowed the company to stock deep titles without hemorrhaging money or wasting precious floor space. From a 2000 paper
(PDF) by Daniel Raff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School: Shelf space appeared to be the bookseller’s main commercial constraint. Unsold books could, after all, be sent back to the publishers for an extended period if they remained in good condition and if the book paid the freight and stood the packing and working capital costs. The Borders brothers thought they could ‘make money selling one copy each of $7.95 books if they and their associates could use the shelf space efficiently by choosing the books intelligently and getting very good at knowing when they had chosen wrong. Doing this effectively involved complex considerations far beyond the powers of intuition of even the most gifted buyers … Shelf space was most valuable when its owners had a good idea of what to put on it.
It worked, too. The percentage of books that Borders returned to publishers, according to a 1991 New York Times
article, was only 8 percent, “well below the industrywide average of about 40 percent.” And they carried obscure titles difficult to locate before the Internet made anything simple to obtain.
So good on ya, Tom and Louis. Despite your subsequent dot com failures
, you make the University of Michigan fam proud.