03/10/2016 04:00 EST | Updated 03/11/2017 00:12 EST

Japan zoo to improve conditions but keep elephant after B.C. woman's campaign

VANCOUVER — For 40 minutes each day at a zoo in Tokyo, Japan's oldest elephant transforms from a bored, zombie-like state to flapping her ears and making huffing sounds, says a Vancouver woman who led a global campaign to improve the animal's welfare.

Hanako becomes animated when her keepers visit the 69-year-old elephant to feed her by hand, brush her with a rake and clean her feet.

It's one of the reasons the elephant should live her final years inside the same enclosure that's been home since she was two, said Ulara Nakagawa. 

She called her trip to Asia a "monumental success" after getting unrestricted access to Hanako over the past week with an elephant expert who interpreted the animal's behaviour.

"Those were sounds of great pleasure she was emitting. It was anticipatory. She was excited," said Nakagawa, 35, in an interview from Tokyo on Wednesday.

"At first we thought it was the food, but it turns out it was the time she gets to spend with the keepers. She loves them."

Nakagawa spearheaded a review of the elephant's treatment at the Inokashira Park Zoo after an online petition was inspired by a blog post she wrote describing Hanako's "concrete prison." More than 400,000 signatures were collected and US$29,000 crowdfunded for the expert to join her in Japan.

Many online supporters were hopeful the zoo would agree to relocate Hanako to a sanctuary in Thailand.

But elephant behaviour consultant Carol Buckley determined the zoo has taken good care of Hanako and a move would prove far too risky for her health.

"There was a bit of a shock that she wouldn't be moved. People ... want to see an elephant run off into the horizon," Nakagawa said about the response from some supporters.

"But knowing what I know now, I know it would just destroy her."

Although the zoo initially bristled at the international criticism, its keepers agreed to two meetings with Nakagawa and Buckley.

Buckley observed that Hanako stands stone-still and "literally blends in with the wall of her enclosure," according to an email by Nakagawa distributed to supporters.

But the expert from Tennessee was impressed with the zoo overall. 

"Hanako appeared quite comfortable with her three keepers and ... she receives a highly nutritious, well-balanced diet," said Buckley.

She made about two-dozen recommendations that include erecting a safety fence to prevent Hanako from falling into a moat, adding sand and rubber mats to soften the floor, and turning off air conditioners.

The zoo agreed to push an indoor viewing area back by another metre to distance the elderly animal from fawning crowds that constantly shout her name.

A representative of the Inokashira Park Zoo described Hanako as very healthy for her age.

"Her keepers are good, caring people who love her," the zoo said in an email. "She is as well cared for as she could be given her current situation."

The zoo said Hanako should not be moved because it could be extremely stressful, as would introducing other elephants as new companions.

"The unfortunate truth is that any dramatic change in the life of an elephant that has lived in a single place for so long without other elephants could potentially kill her."

The campaign will continue fundraising to help the zoo make the changes, Nakagawa said, who will monitor its progress.

There are many more elephants in Japan and worldwide that should not be kept in captivity, she said.

"That's the lesson," Nakagawa said.

"We don't want animals to have to get to this stage where they have to essentially cope to survive. They should be flourishing with their families. What she experiences 40 minutes a day she should be living her entire life."

— Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press